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A need for a military museum in North Iowa was inspired by the exceeding number of attendees to "Operation LZ," an event honoring Vietnam Veterans in 2015 at Heritage Park in Forest City. It was held on the heels of the 40-year landmark of the Vietnam War.

“It was a one-time event that lasted about five to six days,” said Dawn Arispe, director of the North Iowa Heritage Park and coordinator of the Armed Forces Historical Center, located south of Forest City.

“It was huge," she said. "‘Huey’ military helicopters, POW air balloons and a mobile Vietnam wall were brought in. It started out as a small event, but grew exceedingly. It was a wonderful event.”

Shortly after, Arispe had been approached by the founders of "Operation LZ" about starting a museum at Heritage Park.

Arispe spent the next couple of years developing ideas and different aspects of such a project along with whether or not it were possible to pursue.

Earlier this year, she began sharing ideas with Veronica Maas, another local women, who was also a veteran, serving in the Army from 1973-1976 as an X-ray technician.

Together, they begin mapping out the beginnings of the Armed Forces Historical Center to be established as an addition at Heritage Park.

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A foot locker used by veterans. The top footlocker belonged to Ben Carter, who later was the first person/editor to establish the Forest City Summit.

Their goal was to create a museum that would house the memories of military veterans; a place to keepsake the memorabilia and historical items passed on through the generations.

Items would include photos, books, weapons, flags, equipment, uniforms, letters - anything associated with a veteran’s life and their time of service.

“A group of volunteers made of veterans and other community members have been busy with sorting through military items that were originally donated back when the park opened 20 some years,” Arispe said. “None of it had been cataloged or had any identification on it.

"What our group is doing is sorting through it. They are trying to identify the era, who owned it, or brought it in. It will then be stored in a temperature control building until we are ready to put it on display.”

The Armed Forces Historical Center will be located in a military building, one of three that had been donated to the Heritage Park.

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WWII bugle, just one of the many items to be on display in the Armed Forces Historical Center. 

The display would begin with a WWI timeline and continue up to the war in the Middle East. There will also be a special section to honor women veterans, Arispe said.

“People will walk through the museum beginning at the WWI display,” she said. “They will wear a headset phone as they walk through, so they can listen to the stories of those individuals whose items have been donated.

"They will be able to hear the music and other sounds of the era. It’s going to be a hands-on type of learning."

Arispe said the museum is not just meant as a memorial, but as a way for those people who have served to share with others, especially children.

"This generation is all about electronics and that’s why we incorporated the headphones to get these kids involved," Arispe said. "If you put headphones on these kids, they are going to listen, stay interested and become involved.”

Maas estimated that there are about three WW ll veterans still alive in Winnebago and Hancock Counties combined.

“At one time there were about 616 Vietnam Veterans,” Maas said, “but they are quickly dying off. I don’t how many Korean War Veterans there may be. There is a lot of knowledge here and history. It’s a healing process. I like going through the old stuff and looking at it and remembering what it’s all about.

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Joy Shropshire, Marla Betz, Janet Newman, Mary Green, Dawn Arispe, Linda Parmley, Chuck Shropshire and Veronica Mass, all helping to identify donated items.

"I want the community to come look at it and know this is the way it was. I want them to be able to see the uniforms and see that this is the correct way for it to be worn and see the medical equipment used and how it compares to today.”

Arispe added, “That is one of the reasons we are moving this along the way we are. Vietnam War deaths have exceeded the Korean War deaths. We are losing them more quickly. We need to get their stories in place before they are not around to tell it anymore in their own voices.

"It will be a home for a lot of people. What we are finding is grandpa has passed on or dad has passed on, and the children don’t want to separate his items. So, this can become a home for those items, a place where they can be kept whole and accessible to family, friends and the community.”

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Veronica Maas, one of the  coordinators of the Armed Forces Historical Center, proudly shows her uniform worn while serving in the Army as an x-ray technician.

The Armed Forces Historical Center is still taking donations, both of items and monetary donations, which are necessary to meet the needs of the building.

The design and housing of the items need to be in a climate control environment in order to help preserve them for the future.

Projected to be completed by Sept. 2, 2020, just in time to celebrate the 75th anniversary of WWII, Arispe said.

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Jesusa Christians is the Community Editor of the Forest City/Britt Summit-Tribune.

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