With the opening of the dazzling new complex at the National World War II Museum, interest in all things military has surged. Each time I walk into the museum, I think of the World War II veterans in my own family: my paternal grandfather, commander of the Coast Guard Reserves; my mother, a Coast Guard Spar; my father, a naval officer on a destroyer in the Pacific; and his only sibling, my uncle Herb, a Coast Guard Ensign killed in the Solomon Islands barely a year after he graduated from Tulane. Heroes, each one of them.

Our family, like so many, has military mementoes of our family members that should be displayed. For years, I’ve kept Uncle Herb’s Purple Heart, bestowed posthumously, in our safe deposit box. Although I never met him, I feel a deep connection to him each time I hold that medal.

Some families display these treasures artfully. One cousin of ours, Chip Carpenter, a financial adviser, displays artifacts and honors from his days as a Marine Corps officer in Vietnam. Although these mementoes aren’t true antiques, they tell Carpenter’s story as a naval flight officer who flew more than 250 missions in Vietnam.

His Distinguished Flying Cross, one of the nation’s highest military honors, is placed on velvet and framed in gold. Photos of a dashing bombardier/ navigator in his 20s just out of Notre Dame densely decorate the walls. There are also mementoes from his days as one of two American officers who attended the Joint Warfare School in England and the Canadian Command & Staff College. His Marine Corps swords and other treasures make a handsome, masculine room. More important, they give visitors a peek into his courage and patriotism at a tender age.

“I loved my Marine Corps days,” he says. “I loved the flying, the camaraderie. Combat is traumatic, but I was doing my job as a trained aviator in the U.S. military, and it was something I did for my country. It was an important part of my life and my growing up. This wall is really about friends, Marines I fought with decades ago and have stayed in close contact with ever since. Once a Marine, always a Marine.”

Some collectors acquire military items of a different sort.

Judge Charles Gaudin began collecting toy soldiers about 20 years ago. His elegant Old Metairie home boasts thousands of boldly painted soldiers, each depicting a different era, a different battle. In his warm study, an entire wall is devoted to soldiers made of lead, tin, sawdust, paper, plastic and rubber. Delicately painted military miniatures depict battles from the Civil War; both world wars; and the Zulu, Crimean and Mexican wars. There are Cuban soldiers in their baggy striped uniforms, Rough Riders and those from the Thin Red Line.

“I played with toy soldiers like these when I was a little boy,” he says. “We’d buy them at Kress for 5 cents each; they’re still called ‘dime store soldiers’ to collectors.” The judge now finds sets in antique stores and at garage and estate sales.

Collecting military antiques is no different from collecting any other artifacts, says Tom Czekanski, director of collections and exhibits at the National World War II Museum. It is important to pick a particular area, such as a specific war; a single item, such as toy soldiers or rifles; or a person who interests you, such as a historical war hero, and to keep this one topic as your focus. Also, do research before you begin investing in the items.

“There is a great variety of military items, so study and read a lot before you begin collecting,” he advises. “Know whether your
interest is in collecting original antiques or replicas so you don’t pay original prices for reproductions.” 

Czekanski also urges collectors to document each memento so future generations will know its significance: “If you have information on who wore the item and in what battle, include that in the documentation. Any detail helps.”

Maintenance is especially important in preserving these artifacts, and the National World War II Museum has information on its Web site with practical advice for collectors and an extensive list of local conservators.

Most of all, remember that these items are tangible links to individuals who sacrificed to preserve our freedoms. Because of the courage and patriotism each piece symbolizes, each is a treasure in its own right.

And as for Uncle Herb’s Purple Heart, it will soon leave the safe deposit box and be placed on velvet and framed in gold. It will be displayed in our home, linking me even more tightly to a valiant young man I never had the privilege to know.