Carl Brown, sergeant at arms and flea market coordinator for the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 967, remembers a teenager that came into the group's makeshift war memorabilia museum set up at the Antique Depot in Duncansville.
The teen was asking about what it was like to be in the military. So the veterans put a pack on him, which can weigh as much as 45 pounds.
"He said it wasn't that bad," Brown, 64, of Altoona, recalled. "Then, we made him go out and run in it. He found out it wasn't as easy as he thought."
Mirror photos by Patrick Waksmunski
Volunteers Ed Drzewiecki (left) of Nanty Glo and Hunter Ake, 14, of Altoona get dressed in uniforms at the Vietnam Veterans of America museum booth at the Antique Depot in?Duncansville.
A North Vietnamese Army pith helmet and bandoleer are on display at the booth.
The group has collected the thousands of pieces of memorabilia over the past two years for that reason - to teach civilians about military men and women and their sacrifices. Though, not everyone learns the lesson as literally as that teenager did.
"It's about understanding what it was like for these men and women serving in the service, and what they gave up in their lives so we're free," said Floyd Dutton, vice president and chairman for the homeless for Chapter 967.
The reason the group started the collection at the Antique Depot, Dutton said, was to raise money for homeless veterans in need by selling donated furniture and other items. Through that, there was also furniture to choose from if a local vet was moving, experienced a fire or was "just getting started" again, Dutton added.
But then people started donating other things, including old uniforms, ribbons, rifles and medals. So the Vietnam Veterans of America took the initiative to turn their space into a place where veterans could gather and reflect on their history, and where others could come and learn.
"We started it just to let people know what Vietnam was, what it was like to be military," Dutton, 66, of Altoona, said. "It's educational, and it's growing and growing."
The local chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America is comprised of about 150 members, but those who started and volunteer at the flea market site wanted the memorabilia to encompass any and all wars and branches of the military.
"Vietnam vets have a different sense," Brown said. "We felt abandoned when we came home, is a good way of expressing it. We don't want that to happen to any other vet. These guys know they can come in and see memorabilia of theirs.
"There's nobody forgotten, nobody forsaken."
Some of the most unique items in the collection include love letters written by local couples during wartime and a head scarf a soldier bought as a souvenir from his tour in Iraq. One man even donated a Purple Heart that was awarded to him in 1968.
"That's history," Brown said. "He felt strongly enough to give up something that personal so that everyone could enjoy and view [it]. ... People want to preserve their family histories. This is a way they can display their personal history with pride."
There is also plenty to captivate a youngster's attention. Brown said they have things a child can touch - a mock rifle and grenade - or they can try on uniforms and helmets.
"They get to touch history," Brown said. "They get to see those who go before. Maybe it'll spark an interest in the military, but [we hope] it just touches their lives to know that there's someone who's willing to sacrifice for them."
Even beyond the museum, Brown said the depot has become a place that people can also seek and find resources. They've been able to provide information or refer people for help on anything from diabetes and post-traumatic stress disorder to filing for benefits and replacing medals on uniforms.
There are no plans to move the museum, Brown said the group is very thankful to the Antique Depot for giving them a permanent place to house the memorabilia.
Tom George, vice president of operations at Antique Depot and a Vietnam veteran himself, said they're happy to provide the space to house the collection.
"I think the vets are a very worthy organization," George said. "They can use all the help we can give them."
Brown said he hopes more people come out to see everything, or get involved themselves.
"What we do is important to vets," he said. "It's very informal. They don't have to take a number or go through a long process. A lot of vets don't know where to go. We get their attention."
The war memorabilia can be viewed from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays during the Antique Depot's flea market.
Mirror Staff Writer Beth Ann Downey is at 946-7520.