By Dawn Cobb, Contributing Writer
A Vietnam War veteran’s longtime dream is now a daily reality inside Golden Triangle Mall in Denton where veterans, family members and others can learn about the service of Texas Veterans through the Texas Veterans Hall of Fame.
Gary Steele, who served in the U.S. Air Force for 21 years and garnered more than 40 decorations and awards for his service, has long wanted to create a venue where the public, especially the younger generation, could learn about the stories, sacrifices and accomplishments of the Texas men and women who served their country and what it was like for them.
Steele comes from a long line of veterans, starting with his (8th or 9th generation) grandfather, who was a lieutenant in the American Revolution, his father and uncle were decorated WWII veterans and his four brothers also served during the Vietnam War.
Steele earned the second highest rank under the enlisted structure during his 21 years and served in a multitude of roles, from crew chief to training superintendent to detachment commander – to name a few.
Recognizing the contributions from generations of veterans is a mission he took up a few years ago and continues today. His goal? To make sure future generations know the importance of what their forefathers did and how they, too, can serve their country.
“The museum is there to preserve the memorabilia and bring people in to talk about their family members,” Steele said. Families can contribute to the Texan Veterans Hall of Fame database with either documentation of their family members’ military service or even submit a photo of their gravesite. Each submission – online or in person at the museum – is researched, verified and added to the database. The family member then receives a certificate with its own QR code that links to the veteran’s profile.
Open since April 1 at its current location in the JC Penney’s corridor at the mall off I-35E and Loop 288, the museum showcases military memorabilia and various displays.
Each branch of service and all of the major wars are represented in the museum, from World War I where a virtual reality exhibit places the viewer in the trenches to a life-sized “Hanoi Hilton,” a Vietnam Prisoner of War camp, to a video and replicas of the drones used in the Gulf War. Future displays will include a complete collection of WWII rifles and pistols, a women veterans section and a display of the life and story of a local veteran who was a glider pilot during WWII.
The Texas Veterans Hall of Fame will also have a 1943 World War II Jeep and President and former General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s jacket. Eisenhower, who was born in Denison, served in World Wars I and II. He was known for serving as the supreme commander of Operation Overlord, the successful Allied invasion of Normandy during World War II which eventually led to the surrender of Germany in May 1945.
Memorabilia, personal stories and videos tell the tales. Uniforms from different eras provide detail and insight into each unit of the military service. A Vietnam War-era radio pack inside a carry harness sits near stacked sandbags forming a bunker. Portraits featuring area veterans hang from the walls, offering details about their service.
Steele began collecting memorabilia and information about local veterans, starting with a 20-foot display in 45 square feet in the middle of the mall before the Texas Veterans Hall of Fame opened first in a 1,300-square-foot location before moving to the current 3,000-square-foot space.
Donations are accepted for tours through the museum as well as online. Each dollar is funneled back into the museum, building the veteran database as well as for honoring veterans, either through induction ceremonies or with the “Remember Them Forever” (RTF) patriot markers at gravesites such as at the Oakwood Cemetery in Denton.
Take a drive down East Prairie Street in Denton and you’ll find a series of panels describing each of the major wars. Near the headstone of each veteran is a patriot marker featuring the branch of military service of that veteran. On the back is a weatherproof chip with a QR code. Scan it with a phone and you will be able to read the profile of that veteran. The RTF is their signature project where they have 22 cemeteries and over 4,000 profiles in their database.
Steele said he hopes to put patriot markers beside each veteran’s headstone across Denton County so that generations will be able to meander through each cemetery and learn about the lives of the veterans who lie there.
Steele and his non-profit board have also worked to create a website and Facebook page to provide details online for students or others with interests in learning about area veterans.
The website at www.txveterans.org provides details about each war, stories about veterans and information about the organization, how to donate and how to participate in the annual induction ceremony, happening this year on Nov. 13. The Facebook page at www.facebook.com/TVHOF also recognizes area veterans.
When asked why he spends so much time honoring veterans, Steele deflects, preferring to keep the spotlight on others. One of his favorite quotes: “Honor to the soldier and sailor everywhere, who bravely bears his country’s cause. Honor also to the citizen who cares for his brother in the field and serves, as he best can, the same cause.” – Abraham Lincoln.
Denton County Veterans Day Event: At 11 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 11 in front of the All War Memorial on the lawn of the Denton County Courthouse-on-the-Square in Denton, the annual Veterans Day event will feature Congressman Michael C. Burgess as well as other dignitaries. The hour-long event will include remarks, a moment of silence, posting of the colors, honor presentation of the wreath, bagpipes, rifle volley and more.
Dawn Cobb is the Director of Community Relations with Denton County.