LATHAM, N.Y. – When the National Museum of the United States Army opens its doors to the public on Veterans Day, six New York Army National Guard Soldiers will take special pride in the role they played in the museum.
The six men were the models for six of 63 life-size Soldier figures that will bring exhibits in the museum to life.
The figures of the six New York Army National Guard Soldiers – Maj. Robert Freed, from Central Valley; Maj. James Kim, a chaplain from Malta; Maj. Kevin Vilardo, from Saratoga Springs; 1st Lt. Sam Gerdt, from Watertown; Sgt. 1st Class Jonathan Morrison, from Forest Hills, and Sgt. 1st Class Nick Archibald, from Tonawanda – populate two exhibits from two eras.
Construction of the $200 million museum began in the fall of 2016. At 2 p.m. Eastern time on Nov. 11, the museum will hold a virtual ceremony to celebrate its opening. It will be livestreamed at https://www.dvidshub.net/webcast/25129
The National Museum of the United States Army, open to the public at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, will be the first and only museum to tell the 245-year history of the U.S. Army since its establishment in 1775.
The six New York Soldiers served as models for the figures in 2018. While Studio EIS, a Brooklyn company that specializes in making museum exhibit figures, would normally hire actors to serve as models, the museum wanted to use real American Soldiers for their project.
"Having real Soldiers gives the figures a level of authenticity to the scene," Paul Morando, the chief of exhibits for the museum, explained at the time.
"They know where their hands should be on the weapons. They know how far apart their feet should be when they are standing. They know how to carry their equipment," he said.
Figures based on Vilardo, Gerdt, and Archibald are in an exhibit that depicts Soldiers clambering down the side of a ship to land in Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
The figure modeled by Archibald is climbing down a cargo net slung over the side of a ship into a 36-foot-long landing craft known as a "Higgins boat."
The boats took their name from Andrew Higgins, a Louisiana boat-builder who designed the plywood-sided boats, which delivered Soldiers directly to the beach.
Vilardo was the model for a combat photographer. His figure is in the back of the boat taking pictures of the action.
Gerdt modeled a Soldier standing in the boat gazing toward the beach, thinking about what is to come.
The landing craft is so big that it, and three other macro artifacts, were positioned in the museum in 2017. The building was then constructed around those artifacts.
Kim, Morrison and Freed modeled figures in an Afghanistan combat tableau. They portray Soldiers from the 2nd Cavalry Regiment on patrol in 2014. Each Soldier depicts a different responsibility on a typical combat mission.
The figure based on Morrison is holding an M4 and scanning for the enemy.
Freed modeled a platoon leader talking on the radio.
Kim was the model for a Soldier operating a remote control for a MARCbot, which is used to inspect objects that might be improvised explosive devices.
The process of turning a Soldier into a life-size figure started by posing the Soldier in the position called for in the tableau and taking lots of photos.
This allows the artists to observe and record how the person looks. Next, a model of the individual's face is made. A special silicone-based material is used for the cast. The model's nostrils are kept clear so the subject can breathe.
The Soldiers were told what their character was supposed to be doing and thinking and asked to make the appropriate facial gestures.
The Soldiers were recruited for their look and, in some cases, their ethnic background.
The museum needed Soldiers who were leaner than the 21st-century norm to portray World War II GIs. Museum officials also wanted Asian American and African American Soldiers for the Afghanistan exhibit, which is why Kim and Morrison were approached.
Next, the artists sculpted the sections molded from the Soldier into a complete figure and painted precise details on the face and skin, crafting it to humanistic and historical perfection.
Being a part of the National Museum of the United States Army is an honor, the six Soldiers said.
While their names won't be acknowledged on the exhibits, it will be great to know they are part of telling the Army story, they all agreed.
Freed said he was looking forward to visiting the museum. But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he doesn't anticipate going until the spring or summer.
Admission to the museum is free, but visitors will have to acquire tickets online and attend at specified times to prevent crowding, according to museum officials.
Vilardo, who has a 9-year-old daughter, said she was pretty excited when he showed her photographs of him being turned into an exhibit figure.
"I told her it would be just like "Night at the Museum," he said, referring to the Ben Stiller movie about museum exhibits coming to life, "and that we could go visit anytime."