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Minnesota National Guard
Baxter doctor shares his love of military history at museum

Minnesota National Guard CAMP RIPLEY -- Baxter resident Jon van der Hagen spent an entire month visiting battlefields in Europe

His travels include stopping in Normandy to visit D-Day sites at Omaha, Utah, Gold, Juno and Sword beaches He visited Sainte-Mere-Eglise, Caen, Carentan and battle sites of Pegasus Bridge and the Le Feire Bridge He also saw the Meusse Argonne World War I cemetery, where 14,000 US soldiers are buried

The 56-year-old is full of military knowledge and can share hundreds of stories -- including stories you can't find on the Internet or at any museum

van der Hagen has taken his passion for military history and put it to good use He has been a volunteer for the past two years at the Minnesota Military Museum located at Camp Ripley

The military museum is open year-round, but has limited hours from October through April, when it is open from 9 am to 4 pm, Thursdays and Fridays

The exhibits in the museum include artifacts and memorabilia from wars the United States was involved in, from World War I, to the Civil War, to Vietnam, to the latest wars in Iraq and Afghanistan When touring the museum, volunteer guides, like van der Hagen, will walk you through the history and share stories on how Minnesotans served and sacrificed their lives in war

van der Hagen not only is a guide in the museum, but he also has helped organize the archives of the military library and will do anything else that's needed at the museum He volunteers between four to 10 hours a week at the museum van der Hagen, is not retired He's a doctor in the emergency room at Essentia Health-St Joseph's Medical Center in Brainerd

van der Hagen said his wife, Karen, was pleased when he began volunteering at the museum because now he had another outlet where he could share his passion of military history

The Baxter resident's love for the military began when he was a child, beginning with the soldiers He said as he aged and became more mature, his passion went from the soldiers to the history of war

"Please understand that each volunteer probably has different reasons for being here (in the museum)," van der Hagen said "Though we all embrace the clich?, of wanting to do our part for veterans I sometimes have difficulty conveying that at least for me, it is deeper Although I have no military experience, I recognize that the museum memorabilia, artifacts and letters represent a link to our past, our culture and our terrible fascination with violence and warfare Understand that I neither embrace nor deplore our participation in world violence and combat But as I indicated, there are only 29 years of human history without a war somewhere, so it is a part of all of us

"We serve as the guardian for a small portion of Minnesota's essence and collective souls, whom we asked/obligated to participate in morally reprehensible acts for the preservation of our future and our democracy They have the right to demand our attention and respect Their service became a reference point for the rest of their lives, something they neither asked for nor enjoyed, so their stories are a pleasure to cherish and pass on Our lives, accordingly, are built upon their decisions, successes and failures, horrors and glories"

van der Hagen's passion became more of a reality in 2008, when he traveled to Europe -- one of his greatest solo travel experiences -- to spend a month visiting battlefields He traveled to Dieppe, France where the Canadians landed in the catastrophic Operation Jubilee 1942 He passed the Belgian border and visited Ieper (Ypres) and Passenchaele, the Christmas Truce of 1914 and Flanders Fields from World War I He then continued back to eastern France to Verdun, where a million men lost there lives, and nearly 300,000 bodies lie in an ossuary

"Did you know that no US president has ever visited these soldiers lying peacefully in a manicured hillside facing Romagne near the forest?" van der Hagen said "There are 9,000 at Collville-sur-Mer on the bluffs overlooking Omaha Beach (in France) -- the opening scene of 'Saving Private Ryan' is shot there Later I traveled to the Netherlands and followed the invasion route of Operation Market Garden through battle sites of Eindhoven, Nijmegen, Grave and Arnhem, before swinging back south to that small crossroads town called Bastogne, where the Battle of the Bulge occurred I also detoured south of Iepers to Agincourt, made famous by Shakespeare's Henry V in 1415 and immortalized by the Band of Brothers pep talk

"My most haunting memories are the Commonwealth cemeteries, where hundreds (of grave sites) scattered across the continent, a tiny family epitaph etched in the bottom of the tombstone, a salutation from a grieving family unable to bring any of their loved ones home But there's no glory here, only grief and sacrifice We owe them something, for being the survivors and descendants"

van der Hagen said he took hundreds of photo to document his trip to see the battlefields

When touring the military museum, van der Hagen said the weapons room often is a room that amazed people, especially boys

"It's a heart-stopper when you go in here," said van der Hagen of the room that is full of weapons from over the decades

van der Hagen said he learns more information each time he volunteers He really enjoys when people on the tours ask questions or share their own story of a veteran they know

"If someone asks me a question and I don't know the answer, I will find it for them," said van der Hagen "I will do as much research as it takes and then call the person back to give them the answer

"It's so nice to find people as passionate about history as I am"

van der Hagen said children usually ask about the weapons, especially the ones they see on video games and ask him if they are real or not van der Hagen said to help enhance children's interest in history, he is working with an Edina man who authored an application game called "History Hero" He would like the game to include the Camp Ripley museum

"We would be the second Minnesota museum to be on the game if it works out," said van der Hagen

Jennifer Stockinger, Brainerd Dispatch staff writer, may be reached at jenniferstockinger@brainerddispatch.com or 855-5851 Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jennewsgirl

February 11, 2014 - 8:28am
By Jennifer Stockinger
Staff Writer
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