Generations come together at
By Melissa Robinson
Austin Berner spent the last four years as a combat photographer for the United States Army where he was an airborne photographer, capturing the dramatic, sometimes terrifying and mostly heroic actions of his fellow soldiers in combat. Used to being on the photographer’s side of the camera, a new exhibit at the Henry County Military Museum at Heritage Park in McDonough, puts him on the other side of the camera in a brand new exhibit that has a familial twist.
The exhibit features the young man’s fatigues alongside the uniforms of his grandfather, Louis Berner, who was a World War II pilot. The exhibit bridges the gap between generations of two men from the same family, who proudly served their country, worlds and decades apart.
Austin, along with his grandfather, who is now 90 years old, and the rest of his family, visited the museum last Saturday morning to see the display.
The elder Berner was surprised and honored to see the display, but humbled by the fuss.
“Oh for gosh sakes. It’s amazing, although I don’t think I’m a very exciting one to have in here, but it’s just beautiful,” he said after seeing the display case that featured both his uniforms along with an assortment of logs and other WWII mementos he kept through the years and gave to his grandson.
Jim Joyce, who operates the museum for the county said that he has seen many uniforms and that Berner’s is by far, the best.
“It is absolutely the best WWII uniform that we have. It was absolutely complete. We knew we wanted to do something special because we have his winter uniform and his summer uniform and along with that his grandson brought Mr. Berner’s flight log books,” said Joyce. “He kept everything and some of the things he used, such as professional journals, detailed all the aircraft that he could fly and he flew eight or nine different airplanes. It truly is incredible.”
Austin, who lives in Peachtree City along with the rest of the family, said he often heard stories of his grandfather's service in the military and was inspired by his heroics to enlist in the Army. He spent nearly a year in Afghanistan and because of his camera experience, he worked as a combat camera operator for the United States Army.
“We did both photography and video. In other branches you do either one of the other, but in the Army, you do both photography and video. We are in an airborne unit so most of us were paratroopers and our job is to document and preserve the visual side for the military,” said Austin.
He published a book of photos during his time in-country called Afghanistan: Operation Enduring Freedom, which he included in the collection on display. He has four years left as a reservist and said that next week he is off to Cameroon, Africa.
“So far, it’s been an amazing career and I really appreciate the opportunity to give back to our country,” said Austin.
He said he is hoping to continue a videographer career in civilian life and said that working at CNN is one of his goals.
The Berner family exhibit features not only the uniforms but an extensive collection of log books that the elder Berner saved from his three years of service as a flight instructor and pilot. Although humble about his contributions, his grandson said he was his inspiration for his own service.
“He’s my hero. That’s the reason I decided to wear that uniform, because of Grandpa Berner,” he said.
Berner is humble about his military service and was surprised, yet very pleased with the way his old military garb was being preserved. His wife, Barbara, was impressed as well.
“It’s beautiful. I didn’t even realize he still had all of this stuff, but it’s amazing how it all came together and this museum is wonderful,” said Barbara Berner.
Austin said he was inspired to donate the uniforms and memorabilia after visiting the museum with friends. He was so impressed with the museum that he wanted his “Gramps” to be a part of it in some way.
Suzanne Berner, Austin’s mother, said that her father-in-law was touched and had never been honored for his service, not letting anyone make a fuss.
His daughter, Cathy Case, said she too was proud of her father.
“He could have gone on to be a commercial pilot, but he didn’t want to travel all the time. He was a family man. When he came out of the service he finished college at Perdue and had a career with National Standard,” said Case.
In addition to this exhibit, the Henry County Military Museum is a treasure trove of memorabilia from nearly every war and represents every branch of the United States military.
According to Jim Joyce, who is charged with running the museum, the nine veterans who volunteer their time have made the museum the success that it is. They remain constantly busy preserving the many artifacts and memorabilia that are donated, taking great pains to make the displays interesting and artistic, and many of the volunteers were on hand to welcome the Berners, as they do with any other visitors who cross the doorway.
In just two years, Joyce and the volunteers have transformed the Old Red Barn at Heritage Park into a showcase of historical significance, honoring American heroes of all generations. They have also turned the museum in to a safe haven for veterans to seek out others with similar experiences, sometimes to tell old war stories, laugh about younger years and comfort those who are still hurting.
What keeps them coming, day after day is a connection.
John Anzalone was the very first volunteer when the museum was located at Nash Farm Park, and said what keeps most of the men coming to the museum is camaraderie.
“I think the main thing is camaraderie with the guys, said Anzalone. “And sometimes I try to help veterans and guide them a little bit if they’re having problems with medical stuff.”
Volunteer Tom Oakes, who served in the Marine Corps, said it’s a privilege to volunteer at the museum.
“It’s a privilege to work here and if you could spend a day here and see some of these veterans come in and the effect on them, it’s just remarkable,” he said.
Volunteer Richard McLeod is a cabinet maker and specialty builder who served 20 years in the Navy. According to Joyce, he’s responsible for the beautiful woodwork throughout the museum.
“Each of us has something we can do that the others can’t and there’s not anything that this guy can’t make out of a tree,” he said, referencing McLeod.
Filled to capacity with uniforms, photographs, books, medals, logs, orders, as well as a reading room, displays are constantly being moved, tweaked , traded out and fine-tuned, to give equal time to all of the soldiers represented.
The Henry County Military Museum is located at Heritage Park in McDonough and is free and open to the public from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
©Henry County Times, Inc.