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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 citations.

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 “Bud” Hawk.

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 special events.

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 downrange.

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 memories.

More than just a display case, Kermgard sees shadow boxes as “heirlooms that should last for generations.”

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 craftsmanship.

“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.

“The worst thing you can do is leave your awards sitting in a drawer or a box somewhere,” he insists.

That was Gregory Fair’s problem. His dress uniform had been sitting in the closet collecting dust since he’d gotten out of the Army.

One 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.

After 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.

“The most common phrase I hear is that someone should have done this a long time ago,” Fair said.

Uniform 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 submariner, HonorPlace.com 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 footage.

“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 to tell.”

“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: BobsBattleBoxes.com: Bob Kermgard’s high-quality displays range from $60 to $210.

uniform-display.org: Mount your actual uniform top or just mount your medals on a canvas-transfer for $300 to $750.

HonorPlace.com: 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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