By Carl Cote, WyoTodayMedia
After pouring countless hours and over $100 million into his passion project, National Museum of Military Vehicles founder Dan Starks welcomed well over 3,000 visitors to Dubois for the museum’s grand opening Saturday. The museum, which boasts nearly 500 restored and fully-operational military vehicles, opened to the public in August of 2020, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic it had to put off a grand opening celebration until last weekend.
“What’s most amazing about today is Dan Stark’s Vision,” said Wyoming VFW commander James Rish after the ribbon cutting ceremony. “We still got together today despite the cold and rain and that’s great.”
Though most of the veterans in attendance served in Vietnam or later conflicts, at age 96, US Marine Corps veteran Tom Guthrie was one of the few World War II veterans in attendance. Guthrie, who fought with the Marines at Iwo-Jima, sat for the ceremony under a blanket in the first row Saturday morning. “It’s Tom and people like Tom that we’re here to celebrate today,” said Starks during the opening ceremony.
Guthrie isn’t the only veteran Starks has befriended during the creation of the museum. Starks also invited retired Lieutenant General Roger Schultz and former National VFW Commander William J. “Doc” Schmitz to the grand opening as guest speakers at the opening ceremony.
Speaking to the Saturday morning audience of their own experiences in the military, both Schultz and Schmitz have devoted their lives after the military to helping and advocating for fellow veterans. “We went out looking and found millions of Vietnam veterans who had never been thanked for their service,” said Schultz. “Today we’re doing that and it’s really special.”
Concluding the opening ceremony Dan Starks took time to thank everyone who helped him realize his vision into existence including the Dubois local Phelps family, whose son Chance gave his life in 2004 fighting with the US Marines in Iraq. As a tribute to Phelps the museum’s theater bears his name and memorial plaques that tell his story.
One undeniable effect the museum has had on the area is a boost straight into the small economy of Dubois and surrounding parts of Fremont County. “This museum is a great place to work,” said museum employee and veteran Frank Mathson in between greeting opening day visitors near the door. “This day has been a long time coming and it’s great to see everybody here.”
A lucky crowd of the museum’s early visitors were greeted by a fly-over and powerful rotor-wash-inducing landing of a Blackhawk helicopter in the museum’s parking lot. Hundreds, including Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon and First Lady Jennie Gordon, gathered around the landing perimeter as the crew of the helicopter readied the vehicle for visitors to climb inside and experience what it’s like to be in the vehicle that inspired the 2001 Ridley Scott blockbuster Blackhawk Down.
Undeterred by the cold and wet weather, guests flocked from the ribbon cutting to the opposite ends of the museum grounds for hands-on events like tank rides, which quickly created a line of over 300 eager guests waiting to get a chance to ride around a dirt track. Museum employee John Oliver kept the lines moving quickly, getting around ten people out of the tank and refilling it with ten more after it had taken its two laps. Tanks roared by occasionally stopping to pick unload and pick up a new crew of mostly young smiling faces, like JackTaylor.
“It was noisy and bumpy, but really fun” said Taylor, 10, of Star Valley as he climbed out of the Vietnam era M48 Patton tank in which he’d just ridden. “It felt like it was sliding and drifting around the track.”
Led by fire chief Bobby Johnston, the Lander Volunteer Fire Department Pipe Band kicked off the opening ceremony as it marched through the Veteran’s Pavilion and continued to entertain visitors in the pouring rain after the ceremony’s completion. For dining, the museum hired five local food trucks to cater the event including Riverton’s Bunks Barbeque, which had the longest line of hungry visitors throughout the day.
Across the steel bridge at the rear of the property the sound of machine gun fire echoed off the surrounding hills as visitors participated at the grand opening’s shooting range. The museum set up mounted machine guns atop a few of its authentic military trucks like the M249, M60, and the gun that created the longest waiting line by far: the .50 caliber M2 Browning Machine gun. With the assistance of a museum worker, visitors were able to fire a magazine or two at targets downrange with semi-automatic or automatic firing settings.
“That was over too quick, but it was awesome,” Jonathan Rakowitz of Kemmerer said after firing ten thunderous .50 caliber rounds down range out of the Browning Machine Gun. “I’m glad we got out early enough to beat the crowd.”
As the day came to an end and visitors filtered out of the museum Starks sat by himself at a fold-out table in the lobby. Wide-eyed with a grin on his face, he asked children what their favorite part of the museum was, and received praise for various particularly enjoyable parts of the museum from passers by. “This place is incredible and we just wanted to say thank you for putting this together,” said one family whose children were dressed up in army fatigues for their museum tour.
“What I’m most proud of today is the level of respect and gratitude paid to our veterans,” said Starks of the day he and his employees had worked so hard to create. “That’s what the museum is here for – to show gratitude to our veterans and to promote American freedom. That’s what really strikes a chord with me.”