Author with CW4 McLaughlin at Illinois State Military Museum
As my first blog post, I thought it appropriate to write a narrative of an experience I had as a public history grad student. This took place the last weekend of October 2016 while observing a group of engaging undergraduates from Texas who came to Springfield, Illinois for the purpose of raising awareness. The controversy that it caused among the "history elite" in the capital city was unexpected and surprising. The experience of which I write occurred on the day the students were allowed to view the object for which they traveled many miles:
When first hearing about a group of San Antonio undergrads wanting to come to Springfield for the purpose of repatriating an odd souvenir of a long-forgotten war, I remember not thinking very much of it. The souvenir – a prosthetic leg once belonging to the “villain,” Santa Anna – was taken as a war trophy by the 4th Illinois Infantry Regiment during the Mexican-American War. This cork leg, now housed and showcased at the Illinois State Military Museum, has supposedly been a thorn in the side of the Mexican government for the last 169 years, as they would like it returned to them. The continued stance by the museum has been a resounding “No.”
The aforementioned trip did not come to fruition last year, but was rescheduled for this fall. Again hearing about it, I found myself not falling solidly on either side of the surprisingly divisive issue. Being a New Englander, far removed from Illinois and Mexico, it made no matter to me who has the leg. In fact, it has only been in the last several years did I learn of its peculiar location. I mentioned this novelty item to several coworkers, all of whom are central Illinois natives, and I was met with blank stares and furrowed brows resembling a question mark. No one seemed to know much of anything about this “pride of Illinois,” despite its place of honor at “The Castle,” the name of the building containing much of the memorabilia Illinois National Guard members collected and/or used since the founding of this country. Since there seemed to be little knowledge or interest in my sphere of influence, perhaps the same was true in Texas.
Not so. As I discovered upon visiting with the 24 students and their professor from St. Mary’s University of San Antonio, Texas, their passion and conviction runs deep about why this artifact should be returned to Mexico. I attended four separate events over the course of 28 hours with these intelligent, insightful students. Each time I observed them, there was laughter, wonder, thoughtfulness, and most of all, graciousness.
The most compelling aspect of their visit for me though was not the Day of the Dead tribute to Abraham Lincoln in front of the capitol Friday afternoon or the facilitated discussion on campus later that evening. It was talking with a 50-something-year old student named Robert McLaughlin. Robert - or "Chief," as how I addressed him - came with his class for the climactic event of viewing the relic they had researched and discussed for over a year and for which they rode a bus over 1000 miles one-way. For the museum visit Saturday afternoon, while most of his classmates were in shorts and t-shirts due to the unseasonably warm weather, he was in his U.S. Army service dress uniform. Mr. McLaughlin was a retired Chief Warrant Officer Four. He served 27 years on active duty, joining in 1981. I didn’t ask how many deployments he has served, but he said that his specialty for the duration of his service was as a Counter-Intelligence Special Agent, completing his final assignment with the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency). Not only was Chief McLaughlin a highly decorated warrior, but his soft spoken words and warm smile revealed an intellect far more prominent than his rank. The Chief and I strolled together to the museum entrance, sharing military stories, though I learned long ago to speak half as much as I should listen when around someone of his rank and stature.
Upon entering the museum, there was no welcome, no sense of warmth toward these curious and knowledgeable students from Texas. The artifact was already set up in the lobby, roped off, with the director and curator gloved, stern, and silent, standing next to the crated leg, acting as guards rather than as appreciative staff who work at an obscure, non-profit museum. The Chief quietly stood in the back, allowing his younger colleagues to step forward and view the object.
A discussion ensued, becoming rather embarrassing for the senior museum staff as they tried to explain why the leg has no symbolism for anyone except for the regiment that captured it. It was a valiant but contradictory attempt to rationalize a dated argument to young minds already prepared for such foolishness. Fortunately, the students were far too gracious to engage the self-serving explanation, allowing the men to end the 30-minute viewing/discussion with their egos intact.
Just before the crate was closed, I stepped over to the Chief and asked if he had had an opportunity to see the leg up close, which he quietly smiled and said, “Yes, thank you.” I returned to my spot on the periphery of the crowd, as the staff answered a few more questions before closing the lid and moving the prosthesis to a back room. Everyone was allowed to go upstairs to look at the rest of the exhibits and I lost track of the Chief.
As everyone was departing for their bus, I spotted him and went to thank him again for his service and to ask a few more questions. I said I noticed that he stood at the rear of the group, and didn’t engage in the discussion. He said, “No, that’s alright. Besides, being in uniform, it wasn’t my place to say anything.” Forgetting the established regulation of not participating in political or contentious conversations while in uniform, I nodded in recognition of restored memory. Then the Chief quietly said, “The Colonel (director of the museum is a retired US Army Colonel) came up to me and said that I shouldn’t be here in uniform. I told him I’m retired and that I stood in the back and only observed. Then he told me, ‘Well, I just wanted to make sure you knew.’” Chief grinned as I shook my head.
It wasn’t until after I got back to my car did it hit me. The behavior the Silent Sentry endured from the director during that brief encounter was disrespectful, rude, and unprofessional. There was no initial courtesy extended to the decorated, uniformed retiree. No acknowledgement of the decades of toil, studying, fighting, crying, and mind-shattering loneliness that Robert McLaughlin had to overcome to achieve the rank and status of Chief Warrant Officer Four. Not even a “Thank you for your service” from one veteran to another. Instead, this “leader” had to resort to old school military tactics of intimidation and the assumption of superiority commonly used on junior-ranking members. But rather than lose his poise, Chief McLaughlin maintained flawless military bearing and showed shatterproof resistance that can only be built up over years and years of dealing with military officers of that mindset.
So why did the retired Colonel act in this manner? Once the conclusion came to me, it made perfect sense: This retiree traveled all the way from Texas to Illinois with his Service Dress. That uniform was in pristine condition - perfect dress and appearance. He chose to wear that uniform to send a very strong, non-verbal message to those military museum staff. He was and is a PROTECTOR. That is what that uniform represents. That is what he did for 27 years. He knew in his core, that as a Counter-Intelligence expert, appearing in his dress uniform with his ribbons and rank would act as a shield for those students and his professor. He knew that would unconsciously temper those men's argumentative nature. Yes, he stood in the back, but make no mistake, his presence - his aura - protected those kids. He was front and center the entire time - especially in the minds of that retired Colonel-director and National Guardsman-curator. That is why that Colonel tried to exert his derisory will on him after-the-fact. But it made no difference, because Chief Warrant Officer McLaughlin had already won the battle.
One of the final things I asked the Chief before he departed, “You’re in your 50s?” He nodded with a gentle smile. “You served 27 years active duty and now you’re pursuing your Bachelor’s?” “Well, actually,” he half-shrugged with a humble grin, “this is my second Bachelor’s. My first one is in Sociology. This one will be in Psychology." Trying to reconcile the Colonel’s egregious attitude toward the Chief with his apparent fear of being surrounded by young, brilliant Mexican-Americans (the irony being too thick, I won’t go into it), I said in half-astonishment, “Do you even have any Mexican heritage??” I looked at his name tag to be sure. Erupting in laughter, I said, “You’re last name is McLaughlin!” He began to laugh, as much with his eyes as with his mouth, “I’m Irish!” We spoke for a few more moments, I wished him well, he shook my hand and walked out the exit. I watched him cross the threshold into the sunlight, don his cap, and disappear on the other side of the heavy door.
That moment is when I realized I do have a dog in this fight. We mustn’t only fight for the causes affecting us personally, but for the causes that affects humanity personally. Right is right, regardless of race, ethnicity, vocation, or location. I’m reminded of the famous poem, “First They Came…” by Pastor Martin Niemöller. We all need to take action when we witness something wrong, long before we ourselves become the target. I take personally any injustice done to a fellow veteran, especially one who values the institutions and traditions of military service as strongly as me. In the end, to protect someone else is to protect ourselves. That is exactly what those military morale-boosting credos and slogans signify: “An Army of One” means we can best defend each other if we remain cohesive and act as a single unit; one of the Air Force’s Core Values is “Service Before Self,” which dictates that we should always place another’s needs above our own.
Moreover, as an aspiring historian, I was incredibly impressed with these two dozen American students who spent their own money and time to come to Springfield, Illinois because of history! Their interest and enthusiasm about an artifact that has no significant bearing on their personal lives also speaks to the level of devotion and excitement expressed by their professor. They all seemed to understand that one of the most important parts of this trip was to have a conversation about the relic’s rightful place. The Illinois State Military Museum missed an excellent opportunity to educate, discuss, and reflect upon a contentious historical item with a unique group of college kids who simply had the willingness to ask, “Why does it have to be this way?” There simply is not enough of that in the country nowadays. However, they had very positive experiences and interactions with personnel from the State Archives, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, Illinois State Historical Society, and the faculty and students from the University of Illinois – Springfield. Academically, associating with these Texans caused me to realize the full value in the collective process. History, for me, was always a passive and solitary experience – the past had already happened with known outcomes that just had to be discovered through reading or research. But with public history, the outcomes can actively and dynamically unfold, often opening your eyes to new paradigms and perspectives. These students reminded me that “education” doesn’t always equal the number of books read in a semester. As for the military side of my persona, I proudly acknowledge and will follow the example shown me by Chief McLaughlin’s composure and actions. If an Irish/Texan/retired Army CW4 can sacrifice his time, energy, and money for a cause unrelated to his family, heritage, or major, then this New Englander/Air Force/history junkie can do the same.