Most Americans these days have little experience with the military, but the military–past and present–is still a significant part of our history. From those of us who deal with the military daily, here is some advice to the non-military museum that finds itself collecting militaria. (And since I deal with the Army, I will use “soldier” to represent all military personnel.)
All the services are enormous, complex and constantly-changing organizations. Although there are overall experiences that military folk have in common, each person’s experience is affected by which service he belonged to, his particular job, where he served, when he served, how long ago he served and his own personal attitude. So:
1. Soldiers don’t know everything about everything–although some think they do-and they all have opinions. For example, just because WWII soldiers in the Pacific did not wear Ike jackets, did not mean that soldiers in other areas weren’t authorized them, as one WWII vet insisted.
2. Soldiers have been known to–shall we say “embellish”-their experiences. An old military joke: What’s the difference between a fairy tale and a war story? A fairy tale begins, “Once upon a time…” A war story begins, “Now listen. This is no s***!” Embellishing one’s military exploits has been around since at least Baron von Munchausen. Embellishment doesn’t just involve spectacular events; even ordinary details have been known to be embellished.
3. Conversely, all the services have a myriad of regulations governing their service members, and what regulations say and what soldiers actually do are not necessarily the same thing. So, it is possible for a soldier’s story to not agree with “regulations” and still be true.
4. Being related to a soldier does not automatically make a family member knowledgeable in the soldier’s career and experiences. First, family members only know what their soldier has told them–and soldiers are notorious for not talking about their experiences. Second, the attitude of family members toward the military and other service members may be diametrically opposite their soldier’s, which can affect what they report to you.
Our advice? Of course, record the information that is reported to you, as it is reported. But as with any testimony, do your best to verify it. Virtually all the military’s current regulations are available online and an amazing number of obsolete ones are, too. Since wading through these is akin to learning an archaic form of English, we on the Military History Affinity Group can help “translate” and help point you in the right direction.
Just remember the above, as most of us were military members, too!
Ft. Sam Houston Museum, Ft. Sam Houston, TX