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Torn apart by storm, a tribute to veterans is pieced together again

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VILONIA, Ark. » The late April tornado screamed for 41 miles across Arkansas, but its toll was especially vicious here: Just three years after another storm had leveled Vilonia, this city was flattened anew.

Homes crumbled into piles of splintered wood and concrete. Businesses buckled under winds experts said reached 190 mph. And on South College Street, Vilonia’s Museum of Veterans and Military History, a tribute born from the destruction of the 2011 tornado, was ruined.

Like so much else here these days, the museum is in the midst of a revival. Its supporters will miss their initial deadline for opening – Veterans Day, which is Tuesday – but the museum’s collection, which dates to the Revolutionary War, will soon rest within a building that its designers say will withstand all but the most severe tornadoes.

"This museum is the community’s museum," Linda Hicks, its director and board president, said. "Just about everybody in this community has bought into this museum. This is their museum."

But on the morning of April 28, hours after the storm that killed 16 people in three counties, it was unclear how or when the museum would continue.

"There was a hole in front of the old building you could drive a semi truck through," said Paul Hicks, Linda Hicks’s husband. "Everything inside was turned upside-down."

Medals of war heroes had flown into neighboring fields of mud and convulsed earth. When an out-of-town rescue team rushed by the building, they first thought that its motionless mannequins were bodies and that the museum had essentially become a morgue.

Volunteers ultimately retrieved more than 75 percent of the museum’s collection, packed what they could into Linda Hicks’ Toyota Camry and ferried it to neighboring Conway. A bedroom of the Hickses’ home is now filled with uniforms, but it is the nearby storage room that is tantamount to a catalog of the country’s battlefield history.

There are the mundane items of the armed forces, like a blue-and-white sign that reads "Patrolled by military working dog teams," and there are decidedly more compelling weapons of war. One display case features 11 firearms identified by rudimentary labels: numbered green, yellow and red stickers, easily found at an office supply store, tied to a simple legend with basic descriptions.

"It was taken off a dead Viet Cong soldier by a Green Beret in early 1972," reads the description accompanying one weapon, which a retired Army major donated. "This type of rifle kicks something fierce."

Linda Hicks has no intention of ever opening an exhibition at her home. And so a green barn next to the construction site now serves as the museum’s meeting place, with duct tape holding down a coffee-stained floor plan for a new building with sturdier walls.

Vilonia, a short drive north of Little Rock and home to about 3,800 people, is a place that could use some muscular buildings given its recent history of tornadoes. Few imagined another pummeling so soon after the 2011 tornado.

The building that housed the museum – a two-story white structure that was once a college dormitory and later an orphanage – was damaged in that round of severe weather. After the storm, the building’s owner allowed the museum’s organizers to use it. To its founders, Vilonia, with its proximity to Little Rock Air Force Base, was a natural place for a simple museum.

"It’s just a big military community, and it’s very patriotic," said Linda Hicks, who is also the editor of the Vilonia Eagle, a weekly newspaper. "Vilonia walks the walk. We don’t just talk the talk."

The museum opened on Veterans Day 2012 and logged about 3,000 visitors that year. But along the way, it evolved into something beyond a field trip for Cub Scout dens or local school children; it also became a place for the area’s veterans to sit and talk.

"When they came up with this, it was the greatest thing," said Melvin R. Birdsong, a 69-year-old Navy veteran who served in the Gulf of Tonkin and lives here in Faulkner County. "I made some wonderful friends up there."

Emboldened and energized by free cups of coffee, they shared stories with visitors and one another. "Every once in a while, we’d tell a true one," Birdsong said with a grin as he sat among the museum’s inventory recently.

It was a cathartic exercise, Birdsong and others said, for veterans, especially those of the Vietnam era who were sometimes ostracized when they returned to the United States. But it was also a way, they said, to work in public service one last time and far removed from global hot spots.

"For me, it’s not as much about the veterans as it is about the young people," said James McGraw, a former Army paratrooper who served a tour in South Korea after the signing of the armistice agreement.

But for months now, the teaching and talking has given way to renewal in a city where nearly an entire neighborhood sits emptied of homes, where a blue tarp covers a building near Main Street and where a banner outside the United Methodist Church declares it to be "a place of hope and healing from all life’s storms."

For Linda Hicks, the museum will be a similar refuge for veterans and others. Although she expects visitors will be able to trickle into the museum by the end of the year, she is planning a grand opening for much later: April 26, 2015, the day before the first anniversary of the storm.

Alan Blinder, New York Times

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