Ask a Veteran

These Museum staffers and volunteers once served their country in the armed forces. Now they serve in a different way.

paul cochran
Eric Long, NASM

Most of them no longer wear a uniform, so you don’t always know who among the people you work with have served in the armed forces. National Air and Space Museum photographer Eric Long decided to ask. He suggested making portraits of the veterans in the museum community so we’d know who they are. “It would be a nice way to show our appreciation,” he said. We agreed. We found their experiences—during war and peace—to be an interesting collection of stories, and think you will too. Click on the images above to meet just a few of the veterans who make up Museum’s staff, volunteers and docents. And when you’ve finished perusing our photo essay, ask a veteran you know to tell you a story. You may be surprised by how much a memory will mean to both of you.

Paul Cochran (above) has done the kind of flying you read about in adventure novels. He became a member of the Caterpillar Club when his P-47’s engine blew and he had to bail out at 3,000 feet (he was blinded by engine oil and thought he was at a higher altitude). He saw a V-2 rocket on a mission over Germany, and caught a .40-mm cannon shot while returning from a mission on November 1944. “I was over Holland letting down before crossing the English Channel and landing at my home base,” he says. “I didn’t realize at the time I was also receiving small arms fire.”

Cochran was 19 years old in 1942 when he was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Forces. After attending radio operator school, he was accepted into the Aviation Cadet Program. “I became a fighter pilot,” he says, “which was what I had always wanted.” He took all of his training in the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, and flew his first combat missions in that aircraft, before the 356th Fighter Group switched to the P-51 Mustang. “I liked the P-51,” Cochran recalled, “but the P-47 would always bring you home.”

A recent profile of Cochran in The Journal (West Virginia) explains that he arrived at Martlesham Heath, a Royal Air Force field, in 1944, and flew the P-47 on about 10 combat missions across the English Channel. Cochran would eventually fly 38 missions. “How the bomber guys ever got to 25 missions is a mystery to me,” Cochran told staff writer Edward Marshall. “I would’ve never had the nerve or the guts to do the things they had to do.”

After the war, Cochran remained in the reserves. When the Korean War began he was recalled to active duty, and was assigned to the newly formed Air Defense Command, helping to open one of the first radar sites in northern Minnesota, almost on the Canadian border.

Cochran has been a docent at the National Air and Space Museum for 13 years. He decided to volunteer after visiting his niece, Barbara Brennan, an exhibits designer at the Museum. “To me,” he says, “the most enjoyable part of being a docent is getting to talk to the public. I try to make each tour educational, pleasant, and funny—I still love it.”

Paul Cochran is pictured above with the Museum’s North American P-51D-30-NA, which is on display in the World War II Aviation exhibition at the National Mall Building.

Carl C. Hansen

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(Eric Long, NASM)

When the generals in the Pentagon wanted to see what was going on in Vietnam, they called on men like Carl C. Hansen. Hansen was part of a special unit trained in motion picture and still photography. Teams from the Department of the Army Special Photographic Office (DASPO), based at Fort Shafter in Hawaii, would spend three months in Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia, before returning stateside to await their next assignment.

Hansen documented the Tet Offensive, President Nixon’s visit to a combat zone, and the arrival of the first National Guard Unit in Vietnam. Sometimes his work was mundane: He once shot a documentary on which boots best prevented jungle rot. And other times it was heartbreaking, such as when he recorded the daily tasks of the Combat Field Mortuary. “Shooting the mortuary story was the toughest thing I had to do,” he recalls. “About 385 bodies a week were going through there. And we were documenting how the mortuary ran. It was very intense for quite a few weeks.”

Hansen had no intention of becoming a filmmaker. As a young boy on the eastern plains of Montana, he’d considered becoming an architect. The Army had other plans, and offered the 18-year-old a slot in its film school at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. “It was excellent training,” he says. “As far as I’m concerned, I came out of there with the equivalent of a college degree.”

Once in Vietnam, “We had very, very little supervision,” says Hansen. “Our film was flown from Vietnam back to the Pentagon, and we didn’t see the results quite often for months.” It was a different way to work. “You didn’t get to participate in producing the final product, and you didn’t have the opportunity to learn from your mistakes,” he says. “It was so far from the time when you shot it and when you actually saw it, you couldn’t go out and reshoot. That was the frustrating part of the way the organization was set up. But it was interesting; everything I did was interesting.”

After leaving the Army in 1970, Hansen went to the University of Montana, worked on a couple of newspapers, and was a motion picture photographer for NBC News. In 1985 he was offered a position as a photographer at the Smithsonian’s Tropical Research Institute in Panama. He stayed there for seven years before transferring to Washington, D.C. to become chief of photography at the Natural History Museum. He eventually became director of Smithsonian Photographic Services, overseeing not only the photography branches of three museums and Smithsonian-wide events, but also curating 3 million of the Institution's photographs.

In 2007, his professional career came full circle when he was walking through the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center and realized a photograph on display looked extremely familiar: It was one he had taken as a 19-year-old private in Vietnam.

Carl C. Hansen stands next to a photograph he took in 1969 in Vietnam as part of the Army Special Photographic Office. The image is on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

Howard Roseman

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(Eric Long, NASM)

When the members of E Company, 28th Division arrived in Belgium in 1944, they were just in time for the Battle of the Bulge, also known as the Ardennes Offensive. “The Germans attacked because they had excellent meteorology information,” says Howard Roseman, a former member of the 28th Division. “They knew there would be a very short period of about a week or ten days when the weather would be terrible, and that the Air Force could not support the Allies. So they attacked, and they were right: It rained, there was bad weather, and they planned to push all the way from Germany toward the Atlantic Ocean at Antwerp. Well, they never reached Antwerp. The Allies threw everything they had at them. They threw all the 18-year-olds at the Germans like they were sandbags, and I was one of those sandbags.”

Roseman received a Bronze Star for his part in the battle, and another for his fighting in the Battle of Germany. “We were one of the last companies to cross the Rhine river on the Remagen Bridge,” he says. Roseman was awarded five other medals before being returned to Seattle, Washington, where he expected to be shipped to the Pacific to fight against Japan. The Japanese surrendered before he could be shipped out.

Roseman was discharged from active service in July 1946, and immediately volunteered for the Army Reserves, where he served until July 1949. “It’s funny,” he says. “The Army was reorganized at that time, so even though I was discharged as a sergeant from the 28th Infantry, I was separated from the reserves as a corporal.”

In the 1960s, Roseman had been working for General Electric at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas, on the Apollo moon program when NASA hired him to work in Washington, D.C. Roseman would eventually become the agency's space shuttle integration manager. He stayed for almost 35 years before retiring in 1997.

In 1998 he applied to be a docent at the Museum, and he has volunteered every other Saturday since. “It’s a perfect match for me,” he explains, “and it’s been wonderful. I love it.”

Howard Roseman stands near the Apollo Lunar Module, which is on display in the Lunar Exploration Vehicles exhibition at the National Mall building.

Bob Thompson

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(Eric Long, NASM)

Of all the assignments Bob Thompson had during his 27 years in the Navy (both reserve and active duty), his favorite tour was onboard a submarine tender in the Indian Ocean.

“Submarine tenders are the poor boys of the Navy,” says Thompson, who retired as a Commander in 2002. “It’s just a repair ship.” He spent part of 1980 in the Indian Ocean, where his ship provided repair services primarily to submarines, but also to surface ships.

He saw two interesting things during that deployment, he says: a destroyer acting as a tugboat for a frigate; and an SR-71 Blackbird in flight. “We were out on the weather deck of the ship,” he recalls, “when we watched an SR-71 circling overhead, flying as slow as he could go. Then he gave a wing-waggle, lit the afterburners, and he was gone in a heartbeat.”

As a radiation health officer, Thompson spent the rest of his career working radiation safety issues for various weapons stations, shipyards, ships of the fleet, and naval medical facilities. He spent time aboard destroyers, cruisers, and battleships performing radiation safety audits and inspections of medical equipment. But his favorite vessel was the aircraft carrier, where he could watch the F-14 Tomcat.

Once safety inspections had ended for the day, Thompson would head up to Vulture’s Row, on the carrier’s island, to watch nighttime operations. “It’s like ballet,” he says. “Everybody’s got colored flashlights to direct traffic, and you’ve got that Tomcat sitting there, and when they fire up the afterburners and take that cat shot, you’re cheering and screaming and also crying like a baby because you’ve got jet fumes in your eyes because you forgot your goggles.”

Shortly after retiring in 2002, Thompson learned that the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center was looking for volunteers. He’s been volunteering there since December 2003 when the Museum opened. He works in Visitor Services, which includes staffing the information desk, walking the vast hangar floors answering visitor’s questions, and running the elevator to the Donald D. Engen Tower, where visitors can watch airplanes land and take off at Dulles International Airport.

While he likes all visitors, “I steer right for the military guys,” Thompson says. “I look at the haircut and ask ‘Are you still serving?’ Nine times out of ten, they reply, ‘Yes, sir.’ I’ve met a nice bunch of folks that way.”

Bob Thompson is pictured with the Museum’s Grumman F-14D(R) Tomcat, which is on display in the Boeing Aviation Hangar at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

Buz Carpenter

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(Dane A. Penland)

Buz Carpenter flew the fastest jet ever invented, the SR-71 Blackbird. Even though he had already flown the Lockheed C-141 freighter, his first aircraft after graduating from the Air Force Academy in 1967, and the McDonnell RF-4C in combat, to fly the exotic spyplane took a year of training. “Well, you’re wearing a space suit,” says Carpenter, “and you’re flying at 85,000 feet, traveling at 2,100 miles an hour—Mach 3+—and you’re flying reconnaissance missions that were very sensitive to our nation’s government. But the airplane is just very different from other airplanes. You had to refuel every flight at least once, and sometimes three times.”

He recalls flying one mission in the SR-71 that is now in the Museum’s collection. “I flew a mission in that aircraft in 1979 for President Carter. I flew that airplane from Mildenhall Air Base near London all the way down into the Middle East and back. The mission was nine hours and 45 minutes long, and it took five refuelings. The French wouldn’t let us overfly, so we had to fly from England around Spain and Portugal through the Straits of Gibraltar all the way into the Middle East, and then back.”

Reconnaissance missions at 85,000 don’t give a pilot much opportunity to view the landscape, but as a recce pilot in Vietnam, Carpenter saw plenty. He flew 150 combat hours and spent more than 1,500 hours in the F-4. “It’s a wonderful airplane to fly,” he says. One of his most memorable flights was out of northern Thailand. He and his navigator were asked by the United Nations to film an area that turned out to be the ancient Cambodian city of Angkor Wat. “It’s 60 square miles,” he recalls, “and we flew it at 2,500 feet, and it was absolutely incredible to see the temples that were still kind of encased in the jungle.”

While he was in Vietnam, Carpenter met then-Colonel Jerry O’Malley, who flew the first operational mission of the SR-71 out of Okinawa, Japan. Carpenter applied to the SR-71 program, becoming one of three pilots selected that year for the rigorous one-year training.

After more than 60 missions with the SR-71, Carpenter became an F-4E squadron commander at Moody Air Force Base in southern Georgia. In 1991, during Operation Desert Storm, he was Wing Commander of the 377th Combat Support Wing based at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. He retired from the Air Force in 1995, as a colonel, after 28 years of service.

Carpenter has been volunteering twice a month at the Udvar-Hazy Center since 2003. He loves to speak with visitors about the SR-71. “You meet a lot of interesting people as a volunteer,” says Carpenter. “That’s half the fun of the job.”

Colonel Carpenter is photographed with the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, which is on display in the Boeing Aviation Hangar at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

Darrell Lawrence

(Eric Long, NASM)

Darrell Lawrence has great respect for the Predator drone and its ability to provide “real-time” reconnaissance. He was in Iraq, transporting prisoners from the battlefield, when a Predator provided intelligence that halted his convoy. “UAVs have saved my life and others in the Army,” Lawrence says. “Without it, we’re riding right into an ambush.”

In 1981, Lawrence joined the Army National Guard at the urging of his brother. He would spend the majority of the next 29 years in the military police. He spent time with the 274th Army National Guard unit in Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and recalls, “It’s so cold in the desert at night that the sand crystallized. But once the sun starts coming up, it comes up hard and fast. And it gets to 120 degrees in the shade.”

The heat was a challenge, he admits, especially wearing full body armor. “You have to wear it, just to survive,” he says. “We even had higher collars. You don’t want to give the snipers any openings.”

He served in Iraq for a year, and was also deployed to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with the 273rd Army National Guard.

Lawrence did shorter deployments as well: His unit was sent to Lafayette, Louisiana, for three weeks after Hurricane Katrina. “That’s something I’ll never forget,” he says.

He’s been with Protection Services at the Air and Space Museum for the past 15 years. “It just goes hand-in-hand with my military experience,” he says. “I don’t want to be anywhere else. We’re like a family here.”

Does he miss anything about the National Guard? Well, yes. “I’m getting ready to go on a cruise,” he says, “and this is the first time in 29 years I’ve had to pay to travel. I’m used to getting paid to go places!”

Officer Lawrence is photographed with the MQ-1L Predator A, which is on display in the Military Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) exhibition at the National Mall Building.

Cindy Norman

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(Dane A. Penland)

In 1976, when Cindy Norman was a sophomore in high school, the first women were being admitted to the Air Force Academy. Norman’s father showed her the article in the Air Force Times. “I could do that,” Norman thought. “When I was a senior in high school and people asked me what I wanted to do,” she says, “I’d say I wanted to work in computers and do something with space. And I had no idea how I was going to get there. But I thought once I got into the Air Force Academy I could figure it out.”

Norman figured it out by getting an undergraduate degree in computer science and a master’s in systems management. She then spent 16 of her 20 years in the Air Force working on space programs—all of which are still classified.

She credits her interest in space to her father, a 20-year Air Force veteran. “I remember when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon,” she says. “My dad was stationed in Japan, and my mom had it on television, but she had turned down the volume. They were also broadcasting on Armed Forces radio. So we were watching it on Japanese television and listening to it on American radio. I remember that day, even though I was just 8 years old. And that could have been the start of my interest.”

For a high school physics class Norman chose to photograph constellations, so she and her father took his Nikon out to the driveway and took a number of photographs. “That made a big impression on me as well,” she recalls.

In 2003, as she was retiring, Norman heard the new Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center was looking for docents. She was in the first class of docents, and has been volunteering ever since. Once each week, Norman leads schoolchildren—from preschoolers through high school—on highlight tours through the Museum. She always includes a couple of artifacts in the space hangar.

“I’m excited that Discovery is coming, because we can talk about an artifact that has gone into space,” she says. “But I’m kind of sad too that Enterprise is going, because I’ve had a lot of fun talking about it.”

Cindy Norman is photographed with the space shuttle Enterprise, which is on display in the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

Edgar Durbin

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(Dane A. Penland)

Edgar Durbin was a U.S. Army platoon leader in the central highlands of Vietnam from December 1966 to February 1967. “We made numerous company-sized air assaults on unsecured landing zones, looking for the enemy,” he says of the 20 to 30 men he commanded. “Sometimes we found them, and mostly we didn’t.”

Of his time as a platoon leader, Durbin says, “When you operate with the company, you go where the company commander tells you to go, so we were usually in a file with three platoons in a row following a trail. There were several occasions when we were sent out as a platoon to set up ambushes at night, and so we would be broken up—there would be five-man patrols that went out to designated locations on trails and set up ambushes, then wait for the enemy to come by.”

Durbin was wounded on patrol and returned to the States. After he recovered from his injuries, he earned a PhD in physics and monitored research and development programs related to satellites that the CIA and the National Reconnaissance Office were building and operating.

In 2004, Durbin had been a volunteer at the Museum for about a year when curator Paul Ceruzzi suggested he take a look at the Saturn V instrument ring that was being prepared for exhibition. Durbin was quickly hooked. The Saturn V booster had its own inertial system, separate from the guidance systems on the command and lunar modules. The inertial system was contained in an instrument unit located between the third stage of the rocket and its moon-bound payload.

The unit carried about 100 different electronic boxes and components, and Durbin set about identifying them, using historical NASA documents. His research led to a 2010 article in Quest: The History of Spaceflight Quarterly. “There’s a lot of things to learn about,” he says. “Still a lot of things I’d like to know about it.”

Now retired, he volunteers at the Museum three days a week, conducting research, and is currently writing a history of all of the guidance systems for the rockets developed by the Wernher von Braun group, starting with the V-2, and going to the American rockets, the Redstone, Jupiter, Pershing, and then the Saturn.

Durbin is pictured with the Museum’s Saturn V instrument unit, which is on display in the Human Spaceflight exhibition station at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

Frankie Bunn

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(Eric Long, NASM)

Inspired by his father and brothers, Sergeant Frankie Bunn joined the Army in 1986, originally serving in the Field Artillery Branch based in Fort Sill, Oklahoma. He spent several years at a variety of bases in the U.S. and in Germany, before eventually relocating to the Washington, D.C. metro area.

It was while he was assigned to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2005 that he changed his focus. After seeing wounded soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, Bunn realized the importance of diet to recovering veterans, and became a nutrition care specialist. “Seeing my comrades come back hurt from the war—that was very painful,” he recalls. “I hadn’t necessarily served with them, but once you put on that green, we’re all one.”

In 2008 he joined the Washington D.C. National Guard, where he still serves. One of his favorite tours was in 2009, when his unit deployed to Jamaica on a humanitarian mission to build a health clinic. “When the kids saw the clinic for the first time,” he says, “you could see a special look in their eyes.”

Bunn is part of the Office of Protection Services, which he views as a natural extension of his military work. “In the military you put on a uniform and fight for your country,” he says, “and as a federal employee, you’re still serving your country.”

To Bunn, one of the best things about working at the Museum is the chance to meet Tuskegee airmen, who visit the Museum regularly for book signings and to give lectures. Bunn feels a connection with the airmen, since he spent time at Fort Rucker, in Alabama. “I’ve done a lot of reading about them,” he says, “and they were phenomenal. It’s always a thrill to see one of them come through the Museum.”

Bunn is also a member of the Smithsonian Institution Honor Guard, an organization formed in 2003 by the director of the Office of Protection Services. The ceremonial guard is present at funerals of deceased Smithsonian staff, and at other events.

“Everyone has a purpose,” says Bunn, “whether they know what it is or not. Everyone can do something for the good of all people.”

Sergeant Bunn is photographed in the Tuskegee Airman Exhibit in the Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight Gallery, in the Museum on the National Mall.

John Shatz

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(Dane A. Penland)

John Shatz has loved airplanes since he was five years old, but when asked what led him to join the Air Force in 1955, he says, “You know, I've often wondered that myself.” Could it be the uniform? “Yes,” he deadpans. “I wanted to look like a bus driver.”

Before he retired as a major in 1976, Shatz’s favorite assignment was with the 421st Tactical Fighter Squadron, based at Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base from 1965 to 1967, working as a maintenance officer on his favorite aircraft, the Republic F-105 Thunderchief.

The 421st flew the F-105 for only two years, and Shatz was the maintenance officer for the squadron during that time. He had approximately 125 men helping to keep the squadron’s 18 F-105s running 24 hours a day.

The F-105 was skittish. “The more you flew it, the better off you were,” says Shatz. "Basically, the airplane never quit flying.” If a -105 had to go to the depot facility for maintenance, when it returned it wasn’t put on a mission right away. “You knew that something was going to go wrong,” says Shatz, “and probably within the first 30 minutes of flight.” After the aircraft had made two or three local area checks, it could be rotated back into service.

One of the -105s in Shatz’s care didn’t follow the routine. When the aircraft was at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, someone had installed the wrong power unit and had blown every fuse and circuit breaker. Normally that would demote the airplane to hangar queen status, so the pilot who was to ferry the airplane back to Thailand, Shatz’s friend Frank Reamer, went to the officers club and downed a few beers. But after a few hours, maintainers found him and told him the airplane had checked out. The next day, Frank flew the -105 on its long, overwater trip from Clark into Thailand. It turned out that the airplane was assigned to Frank. “At that time, the average fighter pilot did 100 missions, but rarely more than a few in their assigned bird,” says Shatz. “By hook or by crook and sheer accident, Frank flew 80 of his 100 missions in that airplane. It’s unheard of.”

Shatz would be reunited with the F-105 years later. After he retired, he volunteered at the Museum archives for a couple of years before taking a staff position in 1989 as a specialist with the preservation and restoration side of the house. In 2007 he led the restoration effort of the F-105 in the Museum’s collections. His last restoration will be the Curtiss Helldiver. “When that’s done,” he says, “I plan on hanging up my hat and wandering off.”

Shatz is photographed with the Museum’s Republic F-105D Thunderchief, which is on display in the Boeing Aviation Hangar at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. Read more about the F-105 here; or listen to Shatz describe the idiosyncrasies of the F-105.

James David

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(Eric Long, NASM)

James David’s father served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, so after obtaining his law degree, he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and enlist. “I was in the JAG corps,” David jokes, “so no one’s going to give me a ship to drive.” After attending the Naval Justice School, he became a Judge Advocate General; he spent the next 20 years providing service members and their families with legal advice on a wide range of topics.

He came to the Museum as a curator in 1990, in the space history division. Among the artifacts he curates are a few from the GRAB-1 and Corona spy satelites. The Naval Research Laboratory built GRAB; it first launched in 1960, as part of a program designed to gather data on Soviet air defense radars, among other things. Corona was developed by the Air Force and the CIA, and was designed to obtain imagery of the Soviet Union that the U-2 spyplane couldn’t provide. Both programs were declassified in the late 1990s.

As a curator, David would love to acquire hardware from either the Hexagon or Gambit spy satellites, both National Reconnaissance Office projects that were declassified less than two months ago. Hexagon replaced Corona as a broad-area search satellite, while Gambit imaged small swaths of the Earth at very high resolutions. “You want to know the size of the wing on a MiG aircraft?” says David, “Or the thickness of a missile silo wall the Soviets are constructing? You did that with Gambit.”

David is photographed with the KH-4B, the last and most advanced camera system used in Project Corona. The Corona film return capsule is on display in the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.