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Vietnam exhibit provides therapy for local veterans

A newly refurbished Veterans' Memorial Hall opened recently in the St. Louis County Heritage and Arts Center with its first major exhibit "Dignity Thru Unity," focusing on the Vietnam era.

A newly refurbished Veterans' Memorial Hall opened recently in the St. Louis County Heritage and Arts Center with its first major exhibit "Dignity Thru Unity," focusing on the Vietnam era.

The exhibit is the culmination of over a year of planning and researching by St. Louis County Historical Society staff and local Vietnam veterans.

"We see it (the exhibit) as a way to really heal these people," said Bryan P.T. Lean, manager of museum operations with the St. Louis County Historical Society.

He said the exhibit presents the truth about Vietnam and is more than just educational. The exhibit is a way to heal the community.

Recently, a woman brought in a photo of her brother who served in Vietnam. Lean said that the man is homeless and is walking the streets. He wants to give this man, and other veterans like him, private time to experience the exhibit.

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"It's been open three weeks, and we've already had this happening," said Lean.

The St. Louis County Historical Society put together a Veterans Advisory board to help in the planning of the exhibit. Board member and member of the Northland Vietnam Veterans Association Durbin Keeney gave a tour of the exhibit to the St. Louis County Board of Commissioners Tuesday during a meeting held at the Depot. "Durbin's put thousands of volunteer hours personally into this exhibit," said Lean.

The exhibit begins with "the 60's house," a visual timeline of life before the Vietnam War. "For the baby boom generation it will strike a chord to how life was before the war," said Lean. It also gives younger generations a sense of how life was.

"It was a transition from World War II and what life was like for the baby boomers who served," said Keeney. "It was a big change in our country."

Aspects of the Vietnam War are presented immediately after the 1960s display. Lean said that this was done to demonstrate the culture shock the veterans experienced.

There is also a section of photos from rest and recovery, some of which Keeney took himself while he was in Vietnam.

Visitors can sit in airplane seats and view a 16 minute video featuring the experience of local veterans in the war, what they faced when they came home and what their lives are like now.

The exhibit includes an explanation of the draft and the reasons why someone would choose to enlist rather than be drafted.

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An area addressing the health issues and the costs of war is set in the corner. Lean said that the information on Agent Orange is buried in the corner, just as its effects have been for years.

Near the end of the exhibit is a display featuring veterans today. Recent photos of veterans surround a mirror that hangs in the middle. There is room to add more photos as people bring them in.

Items that have been left at Duluth's Vietnam Memorial are also displayed.

Many of the quotes scattered throughout the exhibit were collected from Veterans and their families at sessions that the Historical Society held while in the planning stages.

"Most people don't know the history as well as they should," said Keeney. "And they don't teach it in school." The exhibit shows the truth of what happened with first person experiences.

Lean said history books just show one person's version of what happened. The exhibit includes the first person experiences from over 100 people.

A Web site was created over three years ago as a source for veteran's stories. At http://www.vets-hall.org , it includes the stories of over 4,200 people to as far back as the Civil War.

Lean said that in the planning stages for the Web site, members of the Historical Society met with many World War II veterans who were telling their stories for the first time. Some told stories they hadn't even told their families in the over 50 years since the war.

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The next project of the St. Louis County Historical Society is a 2,500 square foot Ojibwa gallery to be placed on the fourth floor of the Depot.

The project has been in the works for two years and will focus on breaking down negative cultural stereotypes and racism.

"If we can do it as well up there (with the Ojibwa exhibit) as we have down here (with the Vietnam Veteran's exhibit) we will have another winning gallery," said Lean.

We push ourselves at the highest level we can," said Lean about the exhibits the historical society creates. "The Vietnam exhibit would wow people on a national level."

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