The National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center, like the rest of America, will pause Monday -- Memorial Day -- to pay homage to those men and women who have sacrificed their all in service to their country.
Jean McKee wouldn't want to be anywhere else than the museum, just outside Fort Benning, that opened five years ago to honor the 239-year-old legacy of the foot soldier.
But the Midland resident, herself a military wife, won't be a casual visitor to the facility and its signature "Last 100 Yards" exhibit and numerous galleries dedicated to various periods in military history and courageous groups of soldiers.
Nope. McKee, who turns 82 in June, will be one of the docents, or tour guides, helping those who enter the museum, and its adjacent World War II Street, soak up the history and truly understand the blood, sweat, pain, tears and evolving technology that has gone into defending our nation's freedom.
The retired nurse and wife of the late retired U.S. Army Col. Dick McKee, a former Fort Benning garrison commander who passed away in 2005, will not be paid for her expertise. But she wouldn't have it any other way.She's a volunteer who doesn't do it for the money. Her reward?
"To see the expression on people's faces when they come in and say: This is awesome," she said during a reporter's recent visit to the museum. "We have veterans who come in that actually are in tears. We have some that haven't been able to walk into certain galleries," she said. "Like the Vietnam War, we have that in-country experience. A lot of guys have a hard time dealing with that ... Of course, there are a lot of guys that go through it and say, 'Thank you, this is what I needed.'"
The Ledger-Enquirer talked with McKee Thursday, one of her regular days for volunteering as a docent,about her duties , what it means to her,and what she sees in the faces of those who experience what the museum has to offer. By the way, TripAdvisor's online users rate the museum the No. 1 attraction in Columbus, with five out of five stars This interview has been edited for length and clarity in the print edition, while an expanded version can be found at www.ledger-enquirer.com.
Someone said you actually were a docent or guide at the old National Infantry Museum on Fort Benning?
Actually, the old museum didn't have volunteers. But my husband, in his position, was president of the National Infantry Museum at that time. So we spent a lot of time down there because he would bring people over and we would walk around, and we lived on Baltzell Avenue, so it was easy to walk down there. ... (For regular visitors) it was just walk around and do your thing. But it was a great place to bring people and visit.
When was that?
In 1977, the ribbon was broken for that museum. It was inside the old World War II hospital, which I worked in at one time.
You have a long history with Fort Benning?
I have. We had three tours here. That's why we chose to retire here.
Compare the old museum to this one?
Here we have a mission that we honor our soldiers, not only our Infantry soldiers, but every soldier that walks through the door -- past, present and, certainly, we'll honor our future.
And, of course, our second mission is to educate the public. We have a tremendous education program here ... Many people come in, not just school kids, and ask for docents to lead them through the museum and give them the history of the museum and what it's all about.
How many docents are there?
There are probably 15 to 20 docents who can do everything. Of course, we have a lot of volunteers who are not docents. They do the information desks. They do some of the galleries downstairs. A couple of them do just the World War II Street. But the education docents really do a good job.
Are you the most senior guide?
I think there's one docent who has more hours than I do. There's several of us that are getting our 3,000 docent hours pin. I'll get my 3,000 pin in a month or so.What's your schedule like?
I do two mornings a week, Thursday and Saturday, and then any other time they need me. It's probably 10 hours a week and sometimes 15. If our supervisor is not here on Saturday, then I play supervisor; we get to turn the (exhibit) water on and turn the water off and that's a lot of fun. There's a big room downstairs that you have to punch a lot of buttons.
Do you find there's still so many people who don't know about the museum?
Of course, we have graduations on Thursdays and Fridays, and we have many visitors from those who don't know anything about it. But they always say, "When we go back home, we're going to tell people that they need to come and visit the Infantry Museum and Fort Benning." I think it's becoming more widely known now. We have groups that have their reunions here, and that helps spread the word. There's the IMAX theater here and a new D-Day film. Do you see an increase in visitors when a new movie or documentary starts?
We do. When they get a new film, we'll see a big spike. And over the summer IMAX will also have children's movies on Tuesdays and Wednesdays so that the children can see movies. It brings a lot of families in
You must see folks coming from everywhere?
All over. One of our volunteers has a list of everybody he's met from different countries. I forget how many, but he has 40 or 50 or something like that; and different states, and all over the world. He just jots it down and keeps track of them.
Is the museum becoming more of a destination?
A lot of times it is a destination. In fact, for a World War II gentleman we presented our certificate to this morning, this was a destination for him. One of his girls was from Arizona, and he was from Texas, but he wanted to come see the Infantry Museum, and that's their destination for the day.
What's your typical day like?
It depends on where you're assigned. I'm usually assigned in the lobby and at the (Last 100 Yards) ramp. And we have several volunteers that are assigned downstairs in the grand hall in a particular gallery. We always have somebody at the information desk, and always somebody right at the podium there to welcome them.
My favorite is in the lobby and at the ramp there so I can tell people about our premiere signature exhibit, the "Last 100 Yards," and what it's all about. It kind of gives you an introduction to the Infantry and what they've done.
Do you have a favorite moment to share?
We hear a lot of stories. I think my favorite, if you really want to hear it ... I was at the podium one day and a young gentleman came in and he had earrings in his ear and he didn't look much like a soldier. He said to me, "I came here to see the Bradley (Fighting Vehicle in the Last 100 Yards exhibit)." He said, "I was in that Bradley when it got hit in 2003 over in Iraq." So I said, "OK, let me walk up there with you."
His name was Joseph Bass, and we walked up there and he was telling me about all of the guys in this Bradley. His friend that was due to go home in the next couple of days offered to drive that day because the guy who was supposed to drive wasn't feeling good. When the Bradley was hit by and IED (improvised explosive device), (the driver) was killed.
Joseph just talked and talked and talked. The Bradley sits behind some ropes, and I said, "Where did you sit in the Bradley? Why don't you show me where you were." So I let him get in the Bradley. I knew it was going to be a no-no, but I made that decision. He was just wonderful. He thanked me so much for letting him do that. Of course, the security guard came down. I said it's OK. And I told Gen. (Jerry) White, who was still here then, about what Joseph had told me and that I let him in the Bradley. Gen. White said I did the right thing.
Did Joseph get emotional?
He did. He teared up because he lost his best buddy ... The door on the Bradley was closed, so when it got hit (by the IED) they had to go out the hatch.
Did he say how he's faring today?
He's from Texas. He wanted to go back to college and then come here through (Officer Candidate School), and I haven't heard from him since then.
You must take in lots of stories and see plenty of emotion?
Oh, gosh yes. I sat here one day with a mom. Her son had just graduated (from Infantry training) and she knew darn well he was going to go overseas and have to fight. I sat with her while she cried and we talked. I told her my husband was over there in Vietnam three times and that I went through the same thing, and he made it back all three times. And I told her how proud she had to be that she had a son who was serving his country to keep everybody free.
So it's a bit of therapy for some people?
It really is. I'm an RN, so I love dealing with people ... I worked in military hospitals, but I've never been in the military. Just an Army wife.
You must know this place like the back of your hand?
Do you have a favorite exhibit?
My favorite is World War II Street, because I was a child in World War II; I remember World War II. ... There are guys that tell me stories about sitting in the mess hall and having a wonderful time. There are stories about the barracks. In fact, I took one guy out there. The barracks were roped off and they were doing some electrical work, and he said, "I want to go in the barracks." I said, "I really shouldn't let you go in there." But I had the key, so I let him go in. He stood in there and counted the bunks and said, "This third bunk was mine. I remember that I put a case of beer underneath there and, boy, did I pay for it." So it's just little stories like that.
What's the most challenging thing about being a docent?
Probably it's getting people to listen to your stories. You can kind of read people if they want to stand or listen; other times they just want to move on.
The graduations can be special because the soldiers are fresh and families are here?
They are. There are aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins. Sometimes people come in with 15 or 20 people in a family to watch a young man graduate. Every one of them is just as proud as they can be. I love to see the little brothers and sisters come in because I always ask them, "Who's that with you?" They say, "That's my brother." And I say, "Are you proud of them?" They sa, "Yes," and I say, "We are, too."
I understand they haven't completed and opened every exhibit at the museum?
The Revolutionary War and the Civil War, we don't have them open yet. But it costs, so I'm told, about $4 million to open a gallery. So we're looking at a lot of money to open one. I understand that most of the artifacts are in the basement here and they're all being catalogued and everything. But we did open the gallery that was originally for the Revolutionary War; we opened that for the Armor Cavalry (soldiers) until they can get their museum built.
Has that gotten lots of visitation?
Yeah. The Armor Cav guys like that. It's very well done.
As a docent, do you ever get tired of standing on your feet or get tired of talking?
Sometimes I get tired of standing on my feet, but I don't ever get tired of talking. (laughs)
What qualities do you need to be a good guide?
You have to really enjoy what you're doing. You have to be very patriotic. You have to be a God-fearing American, I think, to be able to do something like this. You have to believe in our Infantry soldiers, with what's going on nowadays.
You have to have it deep inside you?
You do. You have to have it inside your heart. And, of course, being a military wife, I can give something back to the Army that it gave me for 28 years, which is awesome.
Docents also have to be able to recognize when people are too overcome with emotion? Or possibly having health issues?
You do. We've had some people that had to sit down for awhile and we would get them a glass of water. There are a couple of us that are medically trained to do stuff like that; I have no problem with that ... I've had to call a couple of ambulances. We had a bad fall on the ramp that I attended, and then we had a guy that had a heart problem. We got the ambulance for him and got him over to Martin Army hospital.
You folks have to be ready for the unexpected?
We do. We get some good training, by the way. We've had some great training through our education department, and Steve McLaughlin, who is a retired sergeant major here, on bomb threats and stuff like that ... It's usually a couple of hours that we go through. And we have in-service training at least once a month for all the volunteers to update anything new in the galleries.
And oftentimes (museum executive vice president and chief development officer) Greg Camp and (museum foundation chairman) Carmen Cavezza will come down and speak to the volunteers and get our input on how we are doing and what we see. That's because when we get compliments or negative comments (from the public) ... They don't get it, we do down here. We give them feedback, and they're really good about following through.
So you don't get paid? What do you get?
We get popcorn; all of the popcorn we want. (laughs)
Is the payment really just the experience and remaining active?
It is. And a lot of people do it for a while and they get tired of it.
Can you use more volunteers?
Always. We could always use more volunteers, especially on the weekend. I do Saturday mornings, and sometimes there's just two of us with a supervisor, and oftentimes we get 200 troops coming in and visitors from all over the place. It stretches us out pretty thin sometimes ... Ideally we would like to have at least six per shift, at any given time.
But you don't have to be related to the military?
No, you don't have to be military. We've got several gals that are not military. But they live in the area and they enjoy volunteering. The fellowship is just great.
Memorial Day is coming up. Do you work that holiday every year?
I work every holiday. I'll go out and do World War II Street from 11 until 3, so that we keep it open completely. Because it's a locked area, you can't go out there unless a docent's with you. So there's several of us that stay out there to answer questions and take visitors through the buildings.
Is the mood a little different on Memorial Day?
I think on Memorial Day it's a little more somber, because of just that particular day we're honoring. Veterans Day would be the same thing, to honor the veterans. People are there because they want to be there.
Just how long does it take to go through the museum?
How about five days ... if you're a reader. You can go through it in probably two hours and just see bits and pieces. World War II Street takes about an hour and a half to go through because you're with a docent. But if you're a reader, we've had people come here all day and come back the next day while they're visiting.
You see plenty of emotion from people coming through here. What emotions do you have, especially with your husband serving so long in the military?
Especially with him serving in Vietnam ... sometimes when I go down into the Vietnam (gallery), I can see some of the things that he talked about, and I'm just very thankful that he came home each time.
Name: Jean McKee
Age: Turns 82 in June
Current residence: Has lived in Midland since 1980
Education: Earned a registered nurse degree from Fort Wayne Lutheran Hospital, Fort Wayne, Ind.
Previous jobs: Her 45-year career in nursing included various jobs — assistant director of nursing at Doctors Hospital; working in the high-risk nursery at The Medical Center; ending her career at the Marion County Nursing Home
Family: Married 52 years to the late retired U.S. Army Col. Dick McKee, a former Fort Benning garrison commander who retired from the military in 1980, worked three years with United Way, then spent nearly two decades as director of Public Works in Columbus; he passed away in 2005 at age 74, with Col. Dick McKee Drive, off Forrest Road, being named in his honor; they have four children and numerous grandchildren
Leisure time: Enjoys hopping on her riding lawn mower and relaxing while cutting grass on six acres of her 11-acre property; she line dances, sings in the choir and plays hand bells at TIC Chapel (been there since 1976); takes classes (English, Spanish, American history and literature) during the week at the college as part of a group called the Columbus Academy for Lifelong Learning