A steely statue of a Guardsman in full combat gear greets visitors at the entrance to the new 9/11 Era Gallery at the National Guard Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. It’s an appropriate symbol of a service operating on all cylinders and balancing missions overseas and at home.
The new gallery “will walk you through what history has looked like for the Guard and all the things we’ve accomplished since 9/11,” said retired Maj. Gen. Gus Hargett, the president of the National Guard Association of the United States.
The new gallery opens Monday.
The statue stands between twin panes of glass, meant to represent the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers. The gallery also includes steel from the towers and remnants of the part of the Pentagon that was destroyed when terrorists flew an airplane into it. A wall behind them displays items donated by guardsmen who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
One of those is the uniform of retired Sgt. Maj. Brian “Scott” LaMorte of the Virginia National Guard. He deployed to Afghanistan just a few months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It was the pinnacle of his military career, he said.
“We finally got to do what I had been training to do for 20 years,” LaMorte said.
As a member of the special operations forces, LaMorte grew a beard, wore a scarf, and dressed in a loose, long shirt to blend in with villagers. The gallery has photos of other Guard members swinging with Afghan children on a playground and talking with village elders.
Part of their job, LaMorte said, was to convince Afghans that the United States did not want to occupy their country, but rather give them the freedom of choice that the Taliban had denied them. In his case, diplomacy worked.
“Because we treated them with respect and dignity, they handed us information that would help get rid of the Taliban or Al-Qaida,” he said. “Acting civil got you what you needed in the end.”
At the same time that Guard members were serving in combat roles overseas, they also played critical roles in humanitarian missions both at home and abroad. One exhibit wall displays photos from the flooded Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina, a reminder of the multi-state Guard mobilization during that disaster. The East Coast recently saw a similar response to Hurricane Sandy.
“Not since World War II have [Guard members] been involved in so many large-scale incidents,” said retired Gen. Craig McKinley, who led the National Guard from 2008 until September this year.
“When you sit with the other great leaders of our services and the chairman and vice-chairman, you have the opportunity to give the perspective of the organization you represent,” McKinley said. “If you’re not in that room, that representation may be diluted or not taken to the highest levels of our government.”
The most powerful section of the new gallery, however, may be the simplest. Across from McKinley’s uniform hang plaques with the names of the more than 750 Guard members who died while serving. They’re organized by state. Between each state, there are empty holes, waiting to be filled by future members who die in the line of duty.
Hargett said he wants museum visitors to take away the fact that the Guard is the only force with two missions — to both fight wars overseas and to protect the homeland.
“No matter how large the catastrophic event is in the country, the Guard is prepared to be there. We’re within those communities and we know those communities better than anyone else,” he said.