New resident brings impressive military collection

Posted 12/16/21

As Louis L’Amour pointed out in his short story ‘Booty for a Badman,’ “When a man travels he should keep sizing up the country, stopping time to time to study his back trail so he recognizes the landmarks.”

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New resident brings impressive military collection

Staff Sgt. Lewis Affelder
Staff Sgt. Lewis Affelder
(Monitor photo by John Arbter)

As Louis L’Amour pointed out in his short story ‘Booty for a Badman,’ “When a man travels he should keep sizing up the country, stopping time to time to study his back trail so he recognizes the landmarks.”

While L’Amour was specifically referring to traveling on horseback in the rugged West of the 19th century, his comment can be applied to practically any undertaking. 

A newcomer to Wood County has been doing just this, “checking the back trail,” of many who have served in uniform in defense of this country.

Robert Dymek recently came to Holly Lake Ranch from Illinois via Kentucky. The retired police officer brought his wife Leslie, his dog Rufus and his passion for preserving the personal stories of those who have served in uniform.

Dymek runs the GHQ Military Museum, a non-profit organization which endeavors to preserve military memorabilia and create mobile military exhibits which can be used for public education.    

The history buff comes from generations of veterans. His forefathers on both sides of his family were combat veterans of World War Two, and his father served in Vietnam. Dymek also served, having accumulated time in the Navy and Army as a blue-green transfer. 

During his subsequent 27-year law enforcement career in northern Illinois, Dymek took note of the paucity of military representation in the second-largest metropolitan area in the United States.

“We had the Great Lakes Naval Museum at the Navy Recruit Training Center and the First Infantry Division Museum in Wheaton, but that was about it,” he stated. “I felt like I needed to do something, so after quite a bit of research, I decided to create a mobile military museum.” 

Such museums are quite popular in Europe and have a small, yet enthusiastic, and growing following in the States. Almost immediately after putting his call out to solicit memorabilia, items began to stream in. 

Dymek described the most common reaction from donors, “They are very grateful to have someone accept their memorabilia,” he stated, “… too often, such things end up in a Dumpster.”

This concept of saving valued items of deceased family members prompted Dymek to want to know more about many of these servicemen. Soon he began conducting significant research into the individuals behind the artifacts. 

What had begun as a museum featuring physical items – including a Jeep which Dymek personally restored to its combat configuration – slowly morphed into a museum of individual service stories. 

While the museum yet features physical objects of interest, such as an original 1903 A-1 Springfield rifle, it is the personal stories which often make a heartfelt connection to visitors.

Those stories are displayed in large wooden cases. With great attention-to-detail, the supporting documents, photos and letters are affixed in the display cases in a manner which is practically artful. The large display cases are wheeled and become the main educational displays when Dymek takes his mobile museum on a mission.

“I have watched people sit down on the ground and read every word of a display,” he admitted. “The letters, especially, are very powerful.”         

Dymek has two favorite personal collections. The first is from a husband and wife team, both of whom served on active duty in World War Two. The husband, Staff Sgt. Lewis Affelder, served as a code-breaker, and the wife, Sgt. Ruth Steppacher, served stateside in the Woman’s Army Auxiliary Corps.

However, the most meaningful display may very well be that of Private First Class Howard W. Harms, who was killed in action at Alsace, France on Jan. 19, 1945.

Six months later, his widow received a letter from the Army Effects Bureau. That letter states:

“I regret to advise that included among your husband’s effects is a New Testament which is damaged, apparently by bloodstain. Please say whether you want that item sent with the remainder of the property. It is our desire to refrain from sending any article which may be distressing; at the same time, we do not feel justified in removing the item without your consent.” 

That letter, as well as Harms’ New Testament, is housed within a display. If one looks closely, the words “May God be with You” are embossed on the cover.

Dymek is philosophical about his small museum. He shared two reasons for continuing the work, “It helps keep history alive.”

With his mobile military museum, Robert Dymek seeks to educate younger generations through honoring the personal histories of service members, thus checking the back trail for many.