Word of museum's closure sparks outrage

By SIG CHRISTENSON | San Antonio Express-News | Published: September 7, 2014

SAN ANTONIO (MCT) -- The Security Forces Museum in San Antonio is modest and obscure, but when word got out that the Air Force had abruptly closed it, thousands of people around the country cried out in protest.

A Save the Air Force Security Forces Museum page, now with more than 5,800 friends, popped up Facebook. A White House petition was filed Aug. 13 seeking to stop the closure, saying the Air Force's training command acted without consulting key players. Some fired off angry messages.

"There's a lot of emotion tied up to this," said retired Brig. Gen. Richard Coleman, a former Security Forces commander. "There's a lot of people that worked long and hard and put time and money into getting this museum set up."

Rocked by the blowback, the Air Education and Training Command vowed last week that the 35-year-old museum won't close completely.

Blaming tight budget times, the command said it is no longer open on a daily basis but will be accessible for occasional tours and for Security Forces troops at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland.

"It's easy to say let's just close it and move on, but I don't think that does our legacy, our heritage or our airmen any favors," AETC historian Gary Boyd said.

Security Forces today is the Air Force's biggest career field with one in every 10 enlistees defending bases, aircraft and nuclear missile silos, as well as guarding prisoners. The field goes back to the Army's Military Police corps in 1948.

Housed in a World War II-era building that opened in 1979 and was modernized a decade later with $180,000 in donations, the museum uses vintage uniforms, weapons and photos to recount the history of Security Forces, which was known as the Air Police and Security Police.

Unlike many modern museums that have hands-on, interactive exhibits, the displays here are static, ranging from mannequins dressed in period uniforms to captured enemy weapons from the Korean and Iraq wars.

One scene pays tribute to a successful Security Police defense of Ton Son Nhut Air Base in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive. Another exhibit salutes Airman 1st Class Elizabeth Jacobson, the first female Security Force's airman to die in the Iraq war. She was 21.

But the museum's days were numbered after the Air Force faced losing its full-time curator there this fall. Unable to replace her because of budget cuts, Boyd and other AETC officials met this summer to map out a new future, but some key groups weren't in the discussion.

The White House petition accused AETC of showing "disrespect" to Security Forces veterans by not including groups like the Security Forces Museum Foundation in the meeting, but a representative from the Security Forces Foundation, another support group headed by Coleman, had a representative on hand.

AETC and Boyd's team of experts hope to merge the Security Forces and Air Force Airman Heritage museums into an existing building on the base by spring.

A $50 million USAF Airman Heritage Museum is pegged to open on Lackland's parade grounds in 2017, but Cortez said that could be delayed if fundraising goals fall short.

Maj. Carla Gleason, an AETC spokeswoman, said Security Forces technical school trainees and other groups were always going to be allowed to tour the museum.

But somehow the change was misinterpreted. Boyd, the AETC command historian, thinks "someone saw maybe a piece of this" without realizing "what that actually meant." While Coleman wasn't involved, he has an idea of what went wrong after fielding scores of calls.

"I think probably it was not staffed right; all the players were not communicated properly about its closing," he said. "I read various accounts, and each one of them seemed to differ."

The museum has closed a couple of times, once for several months in 2009, because it wasn't staffed. But Coleman said he was approached twice about consolidating the museum when he led Security Forces, which is based on Lackland.

"Even after I retired, I had a general officer call me and try to enlist my support to do that, so this business of closing that museum isn't new," said Coleman, who led Security Forces from 1996 until his retirement in 2000. "They don't do out of spite, they do it because there's a scarce amount of resources, and if they can consolidate it, they can save things."


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