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Arkansas museum allowing local veterans to share their history

Visitors learn history from veterans while the veteran volunteers share history and experiences among themselves

VILONIA, Ark. — Get a group of veterans together and they're going tell war stories. When you put those same veterans together in a museum built specifically to honor their service and history, you get a neat blend of teaching and telling.

"Military history is for a select group," said Paul Hicks, a docent at the Vilonia Museum of Veterans and Military History

The unique museum has bazookas, bombs, Betty Boop, and bayonets, all for their different audiences. 

It's a fun way to spend the morning as viewers can grab a couple of buddies and also see the birds in bras that sit in a display of military carrier pigeons.

"I just I just love being here," said Stephen Hillman, a docent who works alongside Hicks. "I love talking to all the old veterans. We try to solve the world's problems every Friday."

The museum is a few blocks from the main drag through town in a new, steel building constructed in the last five years. The building, like many places in Vilonia, took a direct hit from a tornado in 2014.

Volunteers worked for months to recover items and artifacts scattered by the storm to prepare it to reopen in 2015, before it got an expansion in 2016.

"Some guys have said it's just about the best museum they've seen. It covers all the wars," said Hillman.

It does indeed, spanning American military history from the Revolution through the fall of Kabul using authentic donations and re-creations.

Hicks, who retired from the Air Force, points a shot of whiskey that was brought back from Mount Vernon by his partner.

Hillman, who fought in Vietnam as a Marine and spent 20-years in the National Guard, points to several weapons on display from different eras.

Many of the weapons are part of a collection that Hillman himself donated, including a Russian submachine gun popular with Soviet paratroopers, along with a machine gun captured after Russian forces withdrew from Finland at the end of World War II.

Both Hicks and Hillman contributed to the Vietnam era display, which features Hillman's medals and patches.

The museum is full of displays and stories to go along with them. Hicks explains how Vietnamese fighters would turn crude wooden arrows into lethal weapons.

"They would would dip the point in poison of a snake or a spider," he said next to a display of a crossbow recovered from central Vietnam.

But for Hicks and Hillman, there's a lot more going on than showing off the displays and showing people around. It's also an opportunity for them to learn from other veterans.

"I kind of like talking to the War II vets that we had come in here. My dad was an artillery man and in World War II," said Hillman.

"We meet a lot of interesting people down here," said Hicks. "A lot of the old vets come in, especially on Fridays. We have coffee and we solve problems."

The Friday get-togethers are filled with laughter, stories, and a lot of problem solving.

"I think if they would let us go to Washington, I think we could solve most of them," jokes Hillman.

The veterans usually gather in a small kitchen each time they meet on Friday. While they brainstorm ways to solve problems, both Hillman and Hicks said that their solutions usually stay inside of the kitchen.

But, as is often the case, just getting veterans out of their house and around other vets can solve a lot of problems by itself.

The museum's website points out that they felt an urgency to rebuild in 2014 because of that outreach opportunity. 

They don't provide counseling, but the place allows veterans to make a difference, as the museum's setting connects the past to the next generation.

"I get a kick out of the kids. We run a lot of kids through here," said Hicks. "I can show you one little 9-year-old who is a genius when it comes to military history."

That's one more child learning from the past, in a place where veterans can exchange knowing nods.

Visitors can also stroll through and see the outdoor displays, memorials, picnic areas, fishing ponds, and the chapel pavilion.

Those that are interested can obviously also come for the history jam-packed inside, all while catching the gentle jibes Hicks and Hillman exchange on the tour.

"I'm here every Friday. That's how much I look forward to it," said Hicks.

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