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Fort Monroe museum director inducted into US Army Women’s Foundation’s Hall of Fame

Francoise Bonnell, the Casemate Museum's new director, stands above the moat of Fort Monroe on March 4, 2021. Bonnell will be inducted into the U.S. Army Women's Foundation's 2021 Hall of Fame.

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By LISA VERNON SPARKS | The Daily Press | Published: March 7, 2021

(Tribune News Service) — Months into her role at Fort Monroe’s Casemate Museum, director Francoise Bonnell has kept busy discovering relics within its cavernous halls and stories yet to be shared.

But cleaning, archiving and moving bookcases inside a museum embedded within a stone structure two centuries old comes with drawbacks — water gets inside easily and nobody knows exactly what’s buried around there.

“I think the greatest challenge, that we’re faced is the age. There’s not anything I’ve realized now that I’m going to set my eyes on doing that will not have immediate challenges because of the age of the space. But that kind of challenge, I find quite remarkable,” Bonnell said.

The 58-year-old retired Army lieutenant colonel will draw from decades of military service and a career as a historian and educator. That service record and work during her previous gig as director of the U.S. Women’s Army Museum in Fort Lee has earned her a spot in the Army Women’s Foundation’s Hall of Fame.

Bonnell, a lecturer, author and historian, is among seven inductees for the 2021 class. Since 2009, the foundation has recognized the service and achievements of women who served and paved the way for today’s female soldiers, retired Brigadier Gen. Ann Macdonald said in an email. Bonnell was selected after a national search.

She served 22 years in the Army and reserves and led the women’s museum from 2010 to 2020, its expansion and renovation of 11,000 square feet of galleries, Macdonald said her email. Under Bonnell’s watch, the museum received numerous accolades and awards. She has been a contributing writer on several books and co-authored “Capturing the Women’s Army Corps: The World War II Photographs of Captain Charlotte T. McGraw”

The Army is the only military branch that has a museum dedicated to women’s service tracing to the U.S. Army’s origins in 1775, according to the foundation’s website.

A native of Berkeley, Calif., Bonnell joined the Army in 1984 after enrolling in an ROTC program at Scripps College. She became a Distinguished Military Graduate and continued to serve five years of active duty and 17 years as a reservist. She earned a master’s degree in history and a Ph.D. in education.

“I think I was greatly influenced by good leaders. I was inspired by people who’d had similar struggles as I’d have. Mine as a woman, theirs oftentimes because of their race,” she said. “I learned the history of a segregated Army and the discrimination, and the continuation of discrimination, in some cases. There are shared experiences that sometimes we don’t realize are there. And that’s the strength of learning about the history and what other people’s struggles have been.”

The opportunity to delve into the history of women in military — for example, the first group women West Point graduates or the women taken as POWs during the first Gulf War in the 1990s — didn’t come until after started working at the Army Women’s Museum. As the Army increase in the number of women advancing to higher ranks, she knew these stories were important to be showcased.

“I began to learn about the names of women who had come before me. I started to read the heroics,” she said. “Oftentimes we think that we’re the only person that’s been through something. And so, I came to discover that the challenges and struggles I faced in my own military career, have been faced by women from generations that came before me. It impacted me in terms of my own journey, but also, again, going back to, why do we always learn history in certain ways. I wanted to change that for the Army.”

Now at Fort Monroe, as Bonnell oversees both the Casemate and the new minted Visitor and Education Center, there are stories and voices she knows are important to bring into view.While both buildings are situated on opposites side of Fort Monroe’s sprawling acreage, they are connected by the Postern Gate bridge, a passageway linking the inner fort to the outer.

“Until you’re actually on the site, and walking the property and realizing the connections, and then interface with building of the actual fort, it astounds me, because there’s so much history that’s not in the Casemate Museum,” she said. " I think of it as a museum complex. It’s one large, living, breathing history experience.”

Weaving that Fort Monroe experience will be a process.

“(It) will take a while to really figure out what is the story? And where does it start? And when does it start? And then how do you interpret it? It is all encompassing?” she said. “Giving voice to those that didn’t have one before... interpreting the history in such a way that becomes meaningful to people. You might have one feeling (and) somebody behind you will have a different feeling and I want to create that environment.”

The Army Women’s Foundation will hold its induction ceremony and the special recognition awards virtually beginning 2 p.m., Monday. A link to watch the ceremony is available on the website at www.awfdn.org.

lvernonsparks@dailypress.com

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