Operation Footlocker

IMG_2203by Circe Olson Woessner

From the very beginning in 2011, the Museum of the American Military Family had a lot of support from a small group of military brats who’d experienced similar growing pains a little over a decade earlier.

They were the founders of Operation Footlocker.

Operation Footlocker is a grassroots effort to celebrate the shared cultural identity of military brats.

It grew out of an online discussion in 1996.

Mary Edwards Wertsch, author of the book “Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress” and participant in the discussion, first thought of taking a real footlocker and sending it around the country as a way of gathering memorabilia and bringing brats together.

Reta Jones Nicholson provided the first footlocker and was the catalyst who brought Operation Footlocker from discussion to reality.

Marc Curtis, founder of Military Brats Registry, created the Operation Footlocker website, and Gene Moser housed the footlockers. Dozens of people contributed items.

Nicholson wrote in an article published in 2000, “We brats couldn’t take much of our ‘stuff’ with us at moving time (there was a weight allowance), so through the years, we gathered items that carried great meaning to us, representing as they did homes and friends and events that would likely never be returned to. We lost touch with the people and places, but we had our memories, and our portable traditions…”

The Concept

This mobile museum is a treasure chest of memories and artifacts donated by military family members and teachers from the American overseas schools. It travels around the USA, to reunions, to schools, to USO events, to anywhere people gather wanting to learn more about the military family experience.

People pour over the contents of the footlocker set out for display and frequently contribute their own items, registering them in the logbook.

Some people sit down and write out a favorite memory, adding it to the notebooks that travel with the footlocker.

The stories date from the 1940s to the present.

Depending on its destination, the footlocker contains folders of stories, photos and memorabilia from students who attended schools on military installations in the U.S. and overseas: T-shirts, letter jackets, cheerleader sweaters, buttons, coasters, yearbooks, coins and more.

Nicholson wrote, “Thousands of brats and their family members have poured over the stories and objects — with many hoots of recognition. ‘I remember these!’ ‘Omigosh, I went to school with her in Turkey!’

“…There have even been a few tears now and then as you remembered faces and times and places that are gone forever.”

In 2011, Operation Footlocker found a permanent home within the Museum of the American Military Family. This partnership will expand the project and bring it more visibility in the civilian community.

Currently, one footlocker is on long-term loan to “Unclassified: The Military Kid Art Show” and others regularly ship out to functions around the United States.

Memorabilia

Whenever we ship a footlocker, one requirement is that people add an item or two. We never know what to expect. We’ve received graduation diplomas, beer mugs and a set of dog tags.

A widow slipped in her late husband’s green beret with a little information about his tours to Korea and Vietnam. On a note she had written, “He was a great husband and father.”

A mother sent photos of her son from his babyhood through childhood and then as a young man. Written on the handout was, “RIP, my son.”

We encourage requesters to take pictures of the footlocker whenever it gets set up.

After the photos post on Facebook, we get comments like, “This shell was from someone in my graduating class in Guam. Who put it there?”

One lady emailed us to make sure we still had Yogi, her teddy bear she had gotten as a gift from her father in 1959. (We do. He’s our mascot.)

How You Can Help

You can send us photos, letters or items you feel best represent the military child.

You can inform your local school staff or historical society of our need for materials and our availability as a resource on military family life.

You can request to have the footlocker shipped to your event, school, library or other program. The museum pays shipping one way; the requester pays the shipping the other way, either back to MAMF or to the footlocker’s next destination.

And you can donate to our museum to help cover shipping costs and purchase more footlockers as the collection grows and footlockers wear out.

Contact us at info@militaryfamilymuseum.org or 504-6830 for more information or to reserve one of our traveling “treasures.”

(Circe Olson Woessner is the executive director of the Museum of the American Military Family & Learning Center, located inside the Bataan Military Academy. The museum collects the stories of military families of all branches and generations to preserve their heritage, record its evolution and share their experiences. Her column appears on the fourth Thursday of the month.)

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