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NEWS | June 9, 2023

Preserving cultural identities, civil affairs Soldiers train at the MET

By Sgt. 1st Class Gregory Williams 353rd Civil Affairs Command

As thousands of tourists and New Yorkers flood large halls and galleries filled with art, a small group of Soldiers sit in a dimly lit room listening to the do’s & don’ts on handling historical pieces. The scratching of pens and ruffling of pages can be heard faintly as a slide-show presentation illuminates the center wall. For these Soldiers, threats to a population's cultural identity don’t come from enemy rounds or artillery fire but from misinformation, limited resources, theft, and destruction of historical monuments. The goal is to learn the art of preserving history and carry on a legacy that has been going on since WWII.

Last weekend, 16 Soldiers assigned to the 353rd Civil Affairs Command participated in Blue Shield / Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative training at the Metropolitan Art Museum. The training allowed civil affairs Soldiers to expand their knowledge base on protecting historical property, property control procedures, and synchronizing civil affairs forces with non-governmental entities.

“It's important for us to be here because everybody around the world recognizes the importance of their culture and the importance of protecting it,” Cpt. Blake J. Ruehrwein, a cultural heritage preservation officer with the 353rd Civil Affairs Command, said. “What excites me about this work is that art, artifacts, culture, and heritage are for everyone.”

Ruehrwein said since the U.S. Army started ramping up the monuments officer program again, it's crucial to have partners like The MET, which he believes is a global leader in cultural heritage, as a resource for soldiers who will bring unique skillsets to the battlefield.

“Civil affairs recognized the need for specific specialties, which birthed the 38 Gulf program and monuments officers, so what these specialties can do for combatant commanders is provide a unique level of insight and analysis concerning the operating theater,” Ruehrwein said. “It's crucial to have partners like The MET, so our work can be held up to the highest standards in protecting cultural heritage.”

Earlier in the training day, the aspiring guardians of history networked with museum staff members and elected officials. Later, the group received a briefing on the estimated loss of cultural pieces during the Ukrainian crisis. As photos of charred buildings and damaged infrastructures were shown, the soldiers better understood how impactful conflict can be on a people’s identity.

“I think it's a tragedy for people when they lose their cultural heritage as they can feel cut off from their own past,” Andrea Bayer, deputy director for collections and administration with The MET, said. “I think it is very important for people to grow up and be able to look around and see their religious monuments, painters, and sculptors that came before them, who captured the lives of their people.”

Bayer said the MET has been an ally of the U.S. military in historical preservation since World War I and was elated the unit decided to reach out and train at The Met after a nine-year hiatus.

“It's part of our DNA,” Bayer said. “We don't get anything out of it. We want to be partners of the people on ground who are doing this work when possible and do it by their side as it’s part of the mission of this museum which is to preserve the great cultural artifacts of the world.”

After the group finished a collection’s emergency response procedures brief, Soldiers viewed archived materials from famed WWII monuments officers Capt. James Rorimer and Capt. Edith Standen. During the viewing session, a MET staff member read excerpts from Capt. Rorimer’s notepad, which detailed the locations and status of discovered historical pieces. This moment in time allowed soldiers to reflect on their mission and the effect it may have on their military journeys.

“This is a personal and professional opportunity for me to progress in my career,” Sgt. 1st Class David Harkleroad, a 38G direct commission applicant with the 353rd Civil Affairs Command, said. “I want to make a difference and take the experience that I have in the academic field as a historian, the professional experience I have working in the enlisted ranks, and the Iraq and Afghanistan combat experience I have.”

Harkleroad said cultural preservation specialists have a unique job of preserving culture and historical pieces that tell the story of people, their historical origins, and cultural background, which can sway support of U.S. forces within an area of operation.

“Protecting cultural identity is an important component of combat operations and winning wars,” Harkleroad said. “I think the cultural preservation specialists symbolize that our actions are more than just words and will show populaces that their culture is important to us.”

As the training day concluded with several private gallery tours, the group learned how recovered art pieces from WWII impacted families, governments, and laws. The MET staff further educated soldiers by sharing various backstories, with the culminating message being that one soldier can make all the difference.

“You'll find time and time again that people are willing to make enormous sacrifices for something that is an expression of their identity individually and collectively,” Ruehrwein said. “If you show that you care about somebody at that deep of a level and about them as a people in a community, they're going to see that you're not trying to check a block and get out of town. When we show that we really care about people it helps us in protecting the world's culture.”

Culture, history, people … all the things these scholar warriors pledge to defend.