At 10 years old, Erin Anderson sat on the floor with her eyes glued to the television as clips of bombings and shelled buildings from the first Gulf War lit up the screen. Springing up in fear, she ran to the couch and cried.
Four months later, Anderson was standing in a parking lot in Camp Atterbury, Indiana, as she watched her father drive away from home toward an uncertain future as a member of the Indiana National Guard during the first Gulf War.
“I was old enough to understand that he was in harm’s way,” she said. “I knew he may not come home.”
This past June, Anderson, Monroe County History Center education manager, was helping set up an exhibit that opened Aug. 9 and will run through Nov. 12 at the Monroe County History Center.
The exhibit, titled “The Ultimate Sacrifice” in honor of fallen soldiers in Indiana, houses 250 artifacts, many of which were her late father’s.
One of these artifacts was her father’s dog tags, which she held in her hands one day in June while facing a mannequin she had just dressed in her father’s army uniform.
This moment was the only time she teared up during the six-month process of organizing the exhibit, she said.
“I teared up a little bit, but I looked up at the mannequin and saw my dad and was like, ‘No, this is good,’ and then I put the dog tags around his neck, just crying,” she said.
Exhibits manager Emily Musgrave said stories like Anderson’s are the main focus of the exhibit.
“You’ll see in the exhibit the specific stories of specific people,” she said. “This exhibit doesn’t focus on wars or politics or a president declaring this or doing that. It’s about the average people and their experiences and their sacrifices.”
To Anderson, it is her father’s photos and letters that are representative of his sacrifices.
Mounted on the wall by the mannequin are letters signed by Anderson’s dad. One reads, “Tell the girls that I miss and love them so much. My heart cries for you all.”
In the next one, he writes, “I pray to Jesus Christ that we will unite all back together very, very soon,” before he finished the letter with a childlike drawing of his wfamily.
This was his sacrifice and her own, Anderson said.
Beside these letters are photos with Anderson’s father wearing the olive-colored uniform shirt she said he basically lived in even after the war.
In the same photo, his pale blue eyes stare at the camera as a reminder of what his fellow soldiers remembered him for.
“They all remembered my dad’s eyes because they were pale blue,” Anderson said. “And then they always remembered that he was such a good guy and was so selfless and would give you the shirt off his back. The people who knew him are super proud of his service, but also just the person that he was.”
Up the stairs and past Anderson’s letters and photos of her father, one can see rows of mannequins clothed in military uniforms that date back to the War of 1812.
Exhibits manager Kaylee Witt said the mannequin collection was the portion of the exhibit that affected her most.
“I think we are helping to tell the stories of things people may not think about,” she said. “I think the visuals of all the uniforms from all the different conflicts of different eras is so impactful because it’s a good reminder for people because war doesn’t affect everybody like it did in the past. Nowadays people don’t physically see a lot of the conflict, so they aren’t as aware.”
Musgrave said she also believed the mannequins had a particular effect because of how they illustrate the stories behind each conflict.
“Each uniform was worn by a real soldier during their time in the United States military,” Musgrave said. “Each one represents a real soldier and and a real story and real sacrifices.”
As attendees, shuffling past a casket blanketed by an American flag, walls of photographs and sketches of soldiers, and weapons, continue through the exhibit, there is a book filled with blank pages outside.
This book is meant for those affected by war to leave their own stories of sacrifice, Musgrave said.
“We encourage people to share their stories with us,” Musgrave said.
“This exhibit is about presenting the stories of veterans, but it is also about engaging with the community and hearing their stories of sacrifice.