Veterans Memorial Museum Director Chip Duncan is a father, car geek, history and culture buff, architect and former chaplain. He’s an interesting guy with an endless vault of stories. But when the museum lobby fills with veterans drinking coffee, visiting and recounting their days in service, Duncan can be found sitting off to the side, listening.
He knows something that historian John Keegan neatly summarized: Those who have served in armed forces and their families are part of a certain tribe of people.
“They're very steeped in tradition. They have their own kind of language set, you know, the American military talks in a lot of acronyms. Even the way that they tell time is just not the standard way that Americans tell time. And it's very tribal,” Duncan said.
As the director of the museum, filling big shoes left by founder Lee Grimes, Duncan aims to nurture that tribe by bringing them together, telling their stories in the museum and doing what he can to be sure "They Shall Not Be Forgotten," as the museum’s mission statement reads.
Traditionally, the museum held several recognition days throughout the year, including a World War II dinner, a Korean War Day often combined with a prisoners of war and missing in action day, a Vietnam Veterans Day and a “Desert War Day” to celebrate veterans of the post-Vietnam era.
Those days would host guest speakers and attendees from all across the country, once featuring Taya Kyle, wife of “American Sniper” Chris Kyle.
Both as tribute to the 20-year anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, and as a way to make up for pandemic-postponed events, the museum will hold a Veterans Recognition Day on Saturday, Sept. 11, for all veterans.
It will be entirely free and open to the public.
For an hour before the 2 p.m. event, music will be played by musician Fred Hart. USOA Mrs. Pierce County Mandy Bruce will sing the national anthem.
One of the speakers will be Michelle Black, the widow of Puyallup native Bryan Black, who was killed in Niger while serving on a special forces team in 2017. The secrecy of her husband’s work left Black with unanswered questions after his death, so she went to visit the people he served with.
“They were kind of reluctant to talk to her at first. And she learned that what it was, was their guilt. They felt like they had messed up somehow and that's why she was a widow,” Duncan said. “But she came with this message of peace that was like, ‘No, I'm just here to find out. You didn't do anything wrong. In fact, you guys all did everything right according to your training. It's just that's how things work out.’ And she's found that once she was able to deliver that message, it was just burdens of bricks were relieved off of these veterans.”
Through her work, she now seeks to lift that burden for all veterans and other Gold Star families, or families that have lost members in service.
Also speaking on Sept. 11 is Albert J “Jax” Roberts, a Vietnam veteran and A-1 Skyraider pilot.
“When talking to Vietnam veterans, if they were in the infantry they generally will tell you a story of how an A-1 Skyraider saved their life,” Duncan said. “I think it'll be funny just when he starts telling his stories about all the dumb things he did in airplanes, the infantry guys are probably going to go, ‘How did we ever survive?’... So, we’re going to have a pretty good time.”
This summer the museum’s grounds have hosted drive-in movies, car shows and vendor fairs. Duncan is looking forward to when things quiet down in the fall. Though he has stated — in previous interviews with The Chronicle and again this week — he feels the museum has an important role to play in creating a sense of normalcy and community for folks inside and out of Lewis County. He’s also looking forward to the school year starting up, saying it’s always special to have students field trip to the museum.
“It's been like every single weekend we've had something going on. But at the same time, it's just great to be able to be, once again, there for the community and for our local businesses and bring in people that would normally never come,” he said.
Duncan added he is always searching for more volunteers, especially for the weekends.
For more, visit veteransmuseum.org or call the museum at 360-740-8875.