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Displaying Pride in Service

A medals display case tells a family story, but it also can serve as a military museum in miniature

By Joseph Carl DeCaro

Veterans and their love ones can preserve Americas history by creating miniature military museums in their own homes. This may sound like a daunting task but it really isn't. Assembling a simply display case–or even building one from scratch is the easiest way to exhibit your military medals and showcase your participation in the nation's martial past.

The ancient Romans were the first to develop a complex system of military awards, according to the Reader's Companion to Military History. Roman awards ranged from gold general's crowns to phalerae, metal disks bearing the image of the reigning emperor. Phalerae are the ancestors of today's military decorations.

As incentives for future valor, French emperor Napoleon often encouraged his soldiers with military, awards. During WWI, appurtenances – such as oak leaves and campaign stars – made second awards of medals and ribbons more practical for wear.

Today, military awards are either service medals-disk-shaped awards for faithful participation in wars and campaigns-or decorations, which are individual awards for valor with their own distinctive shape, such as the Silver Star. Even if you don't have any colored stars, you can still display your wartime experiences.

Displaying Your Wartime Wares

First, collect every small military item you can find. Medals and ribbons are standard, but don't forget unit and branch insignia, dog tags or wartime photos. Arrange these treasures into two groups: those items you definitely want to display and those just to fill space in the martial jigsaw puzzle you are about to assemble.

After you make your selections, you need a display case. If you're good with wood, you can make your own case to size. But it's easier to buy one commercially from a specialty craft store or online display distributor. Military display cases range from the smallest – 5 by 7 inches, usually for one special medal– to those large enough to accommodate the awards of an Audie Murphy.

Modern commercial display cases use fabric-covered foam backboards available in different colors to match the separate services. Foam backboards easily accommodate the prongs of most military insignia, such as rank and regimental crests. But with the advent of Velcro tape, almost anything can be quickly mounted.

Full-sized medals are easy to mount using small pieces of Velcro behind the award. But if you can't find Velcro, double-sided adhesive foam –or even thumb tacks hidden inside the medal's ribbon fold–also will work.

Because of their small size, ribbons and miniature medals are more challenging. However, if mounted for wear on bars, they are easier to arrange and can be quickly removed for special occasions, such as parades and VFW functions.

When you have decided what you want to display and how to mount it, remove the display frame and place your items on the backboard without attaching them. Experiment with different arrangements until you're satisfied. Then replace the frame to ensure you have enough room – at least one inch or more – along all four borders for a neat appearance. If your display looks too crowded, remove items that look out of place and–if they, are important to you–consider a smaller display case just for them.

Should you change your mind about your display arrangement, don't panic. Using only tape and tacks, you can always rearrange your items on the backboard without doing damage to either. But never use staples or glue (unless you do crossword puzzles. in ink!).

Thinking Outside the (Display) Box

Although Most vets retain a basic training tendency to arrange ribbons and medals in order of military precedence, you no longer have an obligation to do so. (That’s why, after years of being forced to wear olive drab and navy blue; many returning World War II servicemen began wearing brightly colored neckties.) And though your creation is contained within a case, you can still think "outside the [display] box."

For example, entire generations of military families can build their museums separately or combine them together. For example, a father's medals from World War II can be combined with his son's Persian Gulf decorations.

In this scenario – taken from real life –two sergeants (E-5) from the same family with the same names put all their awards into one large display case. The display was oriented vertically with the son's awards at the top of the display and the father's aligned underneath.

Although they were awarded almost 50 years apart, the medals were matched and aligned in pairs. For example, the son's highest award was an Army Commendation Medal with oak leaf clusters and a bronze "V" device denoting valor. Using a ruler – though a T-square is better – it was carefully aligned with his father's Silver Star.

The other awards were similarly aligned: Good Conduct Medal to Good Conduct Medal, Liberation of Kuwait to Army of Occupation ( Berlin), and so on. The two sets of awards were separated with a pair of sergeant stripes from an old class A uniform and two brass Name-plates, centered. (Brass nameplates with excessive engraving can be expensive, so abbreviate wherever possible. Otherwise, an inexpensive military nametag could serve the same purpose.)

To finish the family display, unit patches were placed up, and down the left border the son's 2nd Armored Division to the father's "Tiger" tank destroyer-with marksmanship badges along the right border.

Smaller displays can contain regimental coins or every unit crest worn during a lifetime of military service.

No matter how it's done, any veteran or family member can assemble their own military history that will occupy place of honor in their homes and hearts for future generations.

Note: Shadow boxes for medals are available from VFW's Emblem and Supply. Call (816) 968-1192, or 1193. Or search the Internet for shadow boxes.

JOSEPH CARL DECARO is a Persian Gulf and Balkans vet. A VFW member, he is currently taking courses at Southern Connecticut State University under the GI Bill.

Getting Those Well-Deserved Medals

Requests for the issuance or replacement of medals, decorations and awards should be directed to the specific branch of the military in which the veteran served. Click here to see a a chart for the appropriate addresses based on military service.


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