Celebrate your service
From shadow boxes to
blogs, troops creatively share their experiences
By Jon R. Anderson - Special to the Times
Posted : Tuesday May 5, 2009 10:42:44 EDT
Medals are more than pieces of alloy
and ribbon. They are far more, too, than the facts recorded on embossed
Indeed, any piece of uniform, any
picture or patch, coin or watch, ID card or diploma, any piece of junk,
any portion of treasure is more than the sum of its parts when found in
a far-flung place, earned through excellence or exhaustion, captured in
the crucible of military life.
Woven together, they become the story
of our service. And service should always be celebrated.
Few know that better than John
Hawk, a former Army sergeant, received
the Medal of Honor after taking on German tanks during the Allied drive
through France. The medal sits in a simple box on a dresser in his
bedroom. Even after all these years, he’s uncomfortable being
called a hero. Still, he takes the medal out and dutifully wears the
nation’s highest honor for valor on Veterans Day and for
As far as he’s concerned,
the medal isn’t for his own heroics.
“It’s a symbol of everyone’s service. I
wear it for them,” he said.
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Darrell Mitchell
keeps his medals and mementos stashed in a heavy plastic foot locker he
picked up during a deployment to Afghanistan. There’s the
chunk of the Berlin Wall that he chipped away with a hammer while
standing on his buddy’s shoulders one November day in 1989.
There’s the holster that carried his 9mm during his last tour
Whether you’re a national
treasure like Hawk, a weathered veteran still on active duty like
Mitchell or a fresh recruit just out of boot camp, there are plenty of
ways to celebrate your service and your story.
Bob Kermgard knew how he wanted to
celebrate his 22 years of service as he prepared to retire from the Air
Force: He wanted a simple shadow box for his medals and a few mementos.
Well, maybe not so simple.
“I couldn’t find
anyone who could build it the way I wanted, so I built it
myself,” he said.
Five years later, what started as a
hobby has turned into a part-time business, and his customers have come
from around the country for the personal touch he gives their special
More than just a display case,
Kermgard sees shadow boxes as “heirlooms that should last for
Hand-picked wood, seamless joints,
patiently disciplined curves, water jet-cut glass and more than a
half-dozen coats of varnish rubbed down with steel wool between each
layer can make the difference between a PX special and superior
“If you want something
unique, you’ve got to get it custom made,” he said.
Take his latest project for a former
Marine who’s retiring from the CIA. “He received a
Purple Heart, so I’m using purpleheart wood, with inlaid and
etched lettering — ’CIA’ on top and
‘USMC’ on bottom,” Kermgard said.
worst thing you can do is leave your awards sitting in a drawer or a
box somewhere,” he insists.
was Gregory Fair’s problem. His dress uniform had been
sitting in the closet collecting dust since he’d gotten out
of the Army.
day he wondered what his uniform top would look like in a frame. All
the other elements of a typical shadow box were right there: awards,
badges, rank, unit patches.
some initial experimenting, it wasn’t long before his Web site
was born. He takes images of other people’s dress uniforms
and creates display cases out of them.
most common phrase I hear is that someone should have done this a long
time ago,” Fair said.
Display offers two options: Its original version uses your uniform
mounted inside a custom frame. It’s pricey — $750,
plus shipping — and the uniform must be cut up in order to
fit inside the box. For less than half the cost, Fair prints a
high-resolution photograph of a uniform on canvas to use instead.
However, many are thinking outside the
shadow box all together.
Ed Ross celebrates his service through
words. Ross earned the Silver Star in Vietnam. He worked in senior
civilian posts at the Pentagon for years afterward.
“I used to have a lot of
framed stuff up on the wall. All that’s mostly in a closet
now,” he said.
Instead, Ross has become an avid
blogger. He writes a weekly column that regularly ties back to his own
military experience and stories. He’s among legions now
celebrating, if sometimes bemoaning, their service in real time, for
the entire world to read. For him, it’s about legacy.
“I figured the most
important thing I could leave behind is not symbols of me and what I
did but my thoughts and words. That’s the only thing that
lasts,” he said.
The brainchild of a former Navy
takes shadow boxes off the wall and puts them online. The free service
allows users to create fully scannable shadow boxes — from
desert camo to service colors — with drag-and-drop
customization for awards, badges and tabs.
The cool part: Viewers can click on
the awards to read your full citation.
If you want to tell your story in
deeper detail, there’s a timeline section where you can track
your entire career, from duty stations to deployments, complete with
comments and uploaded photos.
“This is more than just an
online shadow box, it’s about the stories behind the medals
and assignments,” creator Jeb Cariker said.
“I love reading the stories
on HonorPlace,” said Mitchell, who swears he’ll
take some of the stuff out of that foot locker and make a real shadow
box one day.
In the meantime, he’s been
getting creative in other ways.
He and his wife, also a veteran,
wanted a unique way to tell the still-unfolding story of their many
travels while involving their two daughters. They found what they were
looking for in a big map.
Each family member gets his or her own
color thread, starting where he or she was born, and pins interweaving
threads to all the places they’ve lived and traveled to
since, creating a rich tapestry.
The family of Medal of Honor recipient
Hawk found a moving way to preserve his story. With the help of a local
video production company, Hawk created an A&E-style video
biography, complete with cutaways to personal photos and historical war
“A picture tells a thousand
words, but video turbo-charges that,” said R.J. McHatton, who
produced Hawk’s video.
Video biographies for veterans have
become a staple of his business — not just for the fading
generation of World War II, but increasingly for veterans of the
current conflicts, he said. You don’t have to be a Medal of
Honor recipient either, he said. “Every veteran has a story
“We just did one on a Seabee
that did a tour in Iraq and now he’s back over there. He
wanted to do it for his kids. Sometimes they’re not sure if
they want to talk about the war, but it can be a healing process. A lot
of guys say they feel better after they do it,” McHatton said.
Off-the-shelf prices range from $20
for a flag case at your local exchange to about $130. Custom jobs range
from $150 to more than $700.
BobsBattleBoxes.com: Bob Kermgard’s high-quality displays
range from $60 to $210.
Mount your actual uniform top or just mount your medals on a
canvas-transfer for $300 to $750.
Post your “virtual” shadow box online for free with
this innovative blog-type site founded by Ed Ross.
Shadow box tips
A quality, custom shadow box can take
months to build, says Bob Kermgard, owner of BobsBattleBoxes.com. Here
are his tips:
• Good wood. Stay away from
softwoods such as pine. Military exchange specials often use laminates.
Oak takes most stains well. Exotic woods can jack up the price, but if
you have a Purple Heart inside, it sure is cool to say that the shadow
box is made from purpleheart wood.
• Quality glass. Plexiglas
and other plastics scratch and dull over time. Custom shapes need
thicker, tempered glass because they have to be cut with a water jet.
• Mounting. Glue or Velcro
doesn’t last long — particularly with heavier
items. More professional installations will use foam backing to pin in
medals and ribbons and hand-stitch the rest.
• Placement. Avoid direct
sunlight, which can ruin display items over time.
Courtesy: © 2009, Army Times Publishing Company
Link to full web article: http://militarytimes.com/news/2009/05/offduty_celebrate_051109w/
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