Thanks in part to a hard-driving retired U.S. Air Force colonel from Eagle River, Alaska's first museum devoted to veterans opens in Anchorage on Sunday.
Suellyn Wright Novak spent the last six years finding a home for the museum. Novak has a passion for military history, but her determination to see the museum become reality was also motivated by a different kind of emotion - disgust.
"Alaska has the highest (percent) of military per capita," Novak said during a recent interview. "We were the only state without a veterans museum."
Not any more.
The Alaska Veterans Museum will hold a grand opening at 1 p.m. on Sunday, April 17 at the Market Place, 333 West 4th Ave., Suite 227 in Anchorage.
There are roughly 77,000 veterans in Alaska. The museum will feature exhibits and displays from all five military branches plus the U.S. Merchant Marine and Alaska Territorial Guard. Exhibits will include uniforms, weapons and field equipment.
Veterans will tell their own stories, too, in the form of oral histories to be played on video monitors at the museum.
Working under a $5,000 Friends of NRA grant, a team has recorded more than 120 oral histories. Another 120 people are on a wait list to have their stories recorded.
Novak said she personally traveled to California to interview a veteran of the Attu Island campaign. Japanese troops invaded the island and another nearby in 1942 in the only land occupation of World War II.
The interview surfaced through the kind of serendipity that's characterized her involvement with the museum all along, Novak said. She just happened to walk into the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9785 one day to find a woman looking for information about Attu on behalf of her father, a veteran of the campaign no longer physically able to travel to Alaska himself. The woman paid for Novak's trip south to interview the man.
"That's the thing about this museum," Novak said. "Everything that has happened, it is meant to be because it has flowed perfectly."
Several of the veterans profiled in the oral-history project live in Chugiak or Eagle River, such as World War II veterans Bruce Arndt and Clovis Roberts, who served in the Pacific and is now battling lung cancer linked to the asbestos exposure he experienced.
A number are expected to attend Sunday's grand-opening event, among them retired Lt. Col. Dwight Neill, a pilot from Eagle River.
Neill, 76, was stationed in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He served with U.S. Air Force flight operations, flying tours for VIPs and dignitaries including Gen. William Westmoreland, U.S. military operations commander during the war.
At night, Neill remembered, he'd take off from Saigon toward Thailand. B-52s were dropping bombs below. "You could see the ground just light up for miles," he said. "You'd always see gunfire going off somewhere."
Neill first went on active duty in 1956. He got recalled in 1960 during the Berlin Wall crisis. He moved to Eagle River in the 1970s after he left his service in Vietnam and was stationed at Elmendorf Air Force Base.
Asked what story the new museum should tell, Neill answered "One of the things that's true even today: The military is very, very dependent upon calling up the National Guard and reserves. They're still doing it."
Ten years in the making
Novak has plenty of military cred to her name.
She joined the Air Fore in 1971, a time when women in the military still faced limited opportunities in terms of career choices. Upon the completion of her training in the Biomedical Sciences Corps in the mid 1970s, she became the fifth female lab officer in the Air Force. She retired in 2003 after commanding three medical squadrons.
Six years ago, she walked into the Eagle River VFW post and saw a poster for a prime rib dinner to benefit the Alaskan Veterans Museum. She asked about the museum and was told it didn't yet have a home. She offered to help.
"Now it's taken over my life," she said. Novak estimates she's spent anywhere from six to 12 hours a day on the museum since then for the last six years making presentations to almost 200 different organizations, doing oral histories, conducting fundraising activities.
But she emphasizes that she was only one of many behind the museum. The nonprofit organization behind the museum has about 135 members and is run by a nine-member board.
The museum has been 10 years in the making, Novak said, starting with a small group headed by late board president Lloyd Dunham. Charter and founding members laid the groundwork: becoming incorporated, gaining nonprofit status, getting an Alaskan business license and solicitation permit.
The group secured a $50,000 grant from the Legislature as well as $3,000 from the Alaska Community Foundation.
The museum is currently leasing space. Next, Novak said, the plan is to build a permanent museum at a cost currently estimated at $6.5 million.
The museum will educate the public on Alaska's wars and fighting forces, she said, but also provide a "healing place" for veterans where younger service men and women can see what older generations experienced.
"Open dialogues and everybody wins," she said.
Zaz Hollander can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, April 13, 2011.