Colorado Springs company works to preserve legacy of military service

Heritage Arsenal's exhibit team prepares a uniform for display for a Pearl Harbor exhibit honoring Arizona survivor Donald G Stratton at the Colorado Springs Airport.


By BILL RADFORD | The Gazette | Published: May 4, 2019

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Tribune News Service) — Every item at Heritage Arsenal — every uniform, medal, weapon — has a story to tell.

They are stories of bravery. Service. Sacrifice. Hope.

Courtney Linn, president of Heritage Arsenal, displays her favorite artifact in her office: an American flag made by a French teenager while under the German occupation of Normandy. "They knew the Allies were coming," Linn says, "and this was made in preparation."

It's that history, that story, that makes the flag so special. "Without the story," Linn says, "it's just another American flag."

That teenage girl is now a 90-year-old woman. Linn and her husband, Bill, will meet her this summer in France on the 75th anniversary of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy. Bill, meanwhile, will be one of 250 men in full World War II uniforms jumping out of 30 restored World War II planes to mark the anniversary.

While not in such dramatic fashion, Heritage Arsenal works every day to share such stories and shine a spotlight on military history. The Colorado Springs company, started and operated by the Linns, provides artifact acquisition and certification, consulting services and more for military museums and private collectors; a growing part of the business is donation management, helping nonprofits transform donated artifacts into gifts in kind that can provide a residual revenue stream to the organization.

"Our mission is to honor and preserve the legacy of military service," Courtney says. "That's at the heart of whatever we do."

Bill has his own service to point to: 28 years in the Army, where he led parachute infantry, Ranger and Special Forces units. His passion for military history, though, precedes that. He grew up on an Indian reservation in northern Minnesota. It was a remote area with "an interesting concentration of veterans" — "hardy folks" who were former paratroopers and ski troops and SEALs.

"I was just this wide-eyed kid, fascinated with military history," Bill says. He's not sure where that fascination came from — he's not from a military family — but he read every book he could find on military history and he sought out those veterans and their stories. "I was sitting there at age 10, 11, 12, interviewing World War I veterans, talking about the Hun and the Armistice and the trenches." Those stories, he says, showed him there was a whole world far from his own doorstep to explore.

That fascination with the military led him to an education at West Point, his Army career and now his post-Army career. He received his first artifact, a German paratrooper helmet, when he was 10, and has steadily built his collection since; glass cases in the lobby of Heritage Arsenal are filled with items from his collection.

The Linns have no full-time employees, but they do have a team of appraisers, photographers and researchers they contract with. Heritage Arsenal's first job was acquiring artifacts for the U.S. Ranger Centre in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland. The National Veterans Memorial and Museum in Columbus, Ohio, was another customer. Most recently, Bill was instrumental in making the Pearl Harbor exhibit unveiled last month at the Colorado Springs Airport, a reality. The exhibit, which honors local Pearl Harbor survivor Don Stratton and others, includes a fragment from the USS Arizona that's on loan from the U.S. Navy. Stratton is one of five remaining survivors who were on the ship when it was attacked.

Bill served on the Pikes Peak Heroes Legacy Committee, the group behind the display. "We wouldn't have gotten there without him," says El Paso County Commissioner Stan VanderWerf. Linn's expertise and his "world-class network" of museum curators, historians and the like were critical, VanderWerf says.

One key step was getting the 4-foot-by-4-foot-by-18-inch section of the Arizona's superstructure appraised, which was required by the company transporting it. "Everyone was like, it's priceless, there's no way we can do this," Bill recalls. But his experience told him otherwise and he explained the process to his fellow committee members: "looking at displayability, at other pieces around the country, where exactly it came from on the ship, does it have evidence of the explosion."

While the Linns donated their time, it provided great experience — and was a community effort they simply had to be part of, they say. Courtney is excited that the exhibit is at the airport, exposing it to a more varied crowd than those who would seek it out at a military museum.

The Linns have been married for almost 22 years and have three children. Bill's passion for military history was hardly a secret when the couple married; the Linns honeymooned at Gettysburg and celebrated their 10th anniversary with a visit to the National WWW I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Mo. And while the business is new, many of Bill's contacts aren't; he built his network of experts throughout his years in the Army as he helped various units form their own displays.

Courtney, who has a background in marketing, is a graduate student in museum science at Harvard Extension School and the Linns are members of the American Alliance of Museums. When they conceived the business, they thought they would contract with the Army museum system, but the bureaucracy proved too daunting even for someone with Bill's military experience. Individual museums, nonprofits and collectors proved to be "softer entry points," he says.

The Pikes Peak Small Business Development Center was a vital resource, the Linns say.

"From the very beginning," Courtney says, "we were going to them for legal advice, marketing advice. ... What's great about them is they don't treat you like an idiot even if it's all new to you."

While their business is "nichey," Bill notes that there are 17,000 museums in the U.S. and 5,000 are entirely or partly military-themed. "People are like,' Why are you staying in this very narrow lane?' That space is bigger than you think, and there's not a lot of people operating in that space in the way we are. Nobody has a one-stop shop like us, and the credibility that we have as a veteran family is an unusual bona fides inside that space."

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