(Updated in November 2021, first published in 2019)
Since 1894, more than 8,000 officers from 165 countries have attended the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College (CGSC) at Fort Leavenworth. When they have finished what is now the 44-week course on military leadership and strategy, many of the guests have honored their U.S. Army hosts by leaving behind a graduation gift. Over the years, this tradition has resulted in a trove of international military headgear, statues, plaques and other memorabilia totaling about 4,000 pieces.
Currently, the base’s Lewis and Clark Center rotates a public display of these world-class cultural and artistic tributes to military service and preserves the rest of the items on site.
“It’s like living in a home furnished with gifts received not only by your parents and grandparents but also your great-grandparents,” says Jeff LaMoe, a retired Army colonel and director of operations and support for the affiliated Army University. “The gifts may be touristy souvenirs or great art, but we don’t have the training to make those determinations. And what may have been a carnival trinket 100 years ago, depending on who and when it was given, could be invaluable today.”
For example, a simple wooden plaque bestowed by Polish officers may have had little monetary value, but after Soviet forces murdered these same officers in the 1940 Katyn Massacre, the officers’ gift became imbued with considerable emotional and historical significance. Gift displays throughout the building change every six months to reflect the culture of inductees into the International Hall of Fame, which was established in 1973. Students and visiting delegations walk past portraits of alumni, 27 of whom have gold stars on their frames to designate reaching the highest level of leadership in their countries, including a classmate of LaMoe’s who became president of Indonesia.
Plaques listing the names and nationalities of students throughout the years reflect the arc of America’s relationships with other countries. Traditional allies such as Great Britain, Australia and Canada typically have students listed for every year in the institution’s history, but various conflicts and events affect the lineup of guests. For example, Iran had several students before 1979, but none since the revolution and seizure of power by anti-American forces that year. After the fall of the USSR, officer-students began to arrive from former Soviet bloc nations such as Bulgaria, Latvia and Poland. In recent years, officers representing newly formed countries such as South Sudan and East Timor have attended the program.
Past classes have included over a hundred international students and 1,000 Americans representing all branches of the military and several agencies. Throughout the program’s history, more than 10 international female officers have graduated, with Bulgaria sending the first group. Officers who wish to add a gift to the archives privately present their item to the commandant or deputy commandment at an appointed time before graduation.
Archived items, often wrapped in paper or stored in their original packaging, are placed in cubbies with a laminated flag of the country, the gift number and the names of the giver and the recipient. Ranging from plain to plumed, headgear is a popular present, from an Australian stout hat adorned with miniature koala bears to a fancy feathered Italian Bersaglieri one.
While the Army is the grateful recipient of these artifacts, it was not originally staffed to preserve and promote this collection or to research an item’s worth or cultural relevance, says Rod Cox, president and CEO of CGSC Foundation Inc., a nonprofit that has begun the work of preserving these items. One of CGSC Foundation’s main goals is to create “The Art of War, Gifts of Peace” initiative to curate the archive and make it more widely available to the public through outreach programs, exhibits and a book and documentary about the collection.
These international gifts are just one aspect of the aesthetic bounty in the Lewis and Clark Center. Jack Kem, associate dean of academics and a professor at the college, has been instrumental in converting available space in the center into an exhibit celebrating diverse depictions of duty. “We think that every section of the school is a place of honor and a place to learn,” he says. “The U.S. government has made a significant investment in students’ education, and the artwork throughout this first-class building reinforces that they’re now tied to our proud history too.”
That history includes President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who graduated from the college; President Harry S. Truman, who lectured here; and every American four- or five-star general, including Missourian Omar Bradley. On the main floor, visiting dignitaries conduct business beneath a portrait of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, surrounded by his personal furnishings and seated at the desk he used in his New York City office after retiring from the Army.
Opened in 2007, the center features refurbished three-story stained-glass windows depicting every U.S. campaign from the Revolutionary War to the Gulf War. Oil paintings commissioned as class gifts for the past 70 years highlight various aspects of the service experience, from training and battles to pensive moments and homecomings.
An alcove saluting women in the military includes a painting of Molly Pitcher taking her injured husband’s place in loading artillery during the Battle of Monmouth in 1778. A replica of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Washington, D.C., graces the area along with a Claire Parent watercolor of women veterans and other works. Many items complement classroom discussions, including military uniforms and weapons.
Noting that less than 1 percent of the nation’s citizens serve in the military today, LaMoe perceives the foundation’s work with “The Art of War, Gifts of Peace” initiative as an integral resource in educating the public about the military’s history and service. “We’re the Army, and the Army belongs to taxpayers, so we want to share what we have as broadly as we can,” he says.
How to access entry to Fort Leavenworth?
Since the Lewis and Clark Center is located on Fort Leavenworth, visitors without Department of Defense ID will need to stop by the fort’s Visitor Control Center, 1 Sherman Avenue (intersection of Metropolitan and Fourth Street). Here, the driver of a vehicle must show a valid license, registration and proof of insurance. All visitors 16 and over must show a photo ID. After these steps, visitors will receive a Temporary Pass and instructions to enter the installation. “Don’t be intimidated by our access procedures,” writes Harry Sarles, public affairs officer for Army University. “Fort Leavenworth encourages visitors to our historic post and you are welcome here.” Anyone with questions about entry can call Fort Leavenworth’s Customer Service helpline at (913) 684-3600.