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FORT HARRISON - A group of veterans haven't slowed in their efforts to raise the $600,000 that stands between them and their plans to expand the Montana Military Museum.

If successful, the project would double the size of the military museum at Fort Harrison, placing it on a list of "true" museums and making it one of the largest venues of its kind in the region.

Mostly in their 80s now, the vets driving the idea remain optimistic. They're close, they say, to completing what could be the last great mission of their storied lives.

When not discussing business, the veterans often talk of the historic battles they fought, such as that for New Guinea in the South Pacific, or of the formation of the First Special Service Force in Helena, which went on to fight in Italy and become the Army's Green Berets.

25-year effort

Jim Duffy, a former Montana adjutant general and commander of the Montana National Guard, said the effort to build a military museum of any size in Montana began in 1984.

It was then that the National Guard Bureau authorized supporters of the idea to begin storing artifacts in a holding area that served for Fort Harrison's weapons back in the 1940s.

"It wasn't an easy thing to do," Duffy said of those early days. "But we've come a terrifically long ways. Funding, naturally, is the biggest issue. If we're not successful getting the money, we can't do what we're proposing."

Duffy retired from the service more than 20 years ago. Today, he strides across the frozen grounds with Ray Read, the museum's curator. They stand between the museum's two existing buildings and talk of future plans.

It's here, Read said, that the new display hall will be constructed, connecting the museum's two existing buildings. The new structure will add 5,000 square feet to the museum complex, bringing the facility to around 8,500 square feet overall.

Supporters have raised about $150,000. The board needs $750,000 to complete the expansion. They hope to open the museum by 2010 - a target Read believes is possible, as long as the fundraising goes as planned.

"It all depends on where we are in the fundraising," Read said. "We're trying to raise enough funds to complete the project, so when people walk into that building for the first time, they'll have something to see."

Incomplete history

Filling the new museum won't be a problem, Read said, as he entered the collection's building and opens a wire cage. The scent of canvas is deep and the rows of artifacts stretch into the darkness, stacked and shelved like a scene in an Indiana Jones movie.

Outside the cage, Ed Morrow, who has tagged more than 10,000 items for the museum during the past few years, watches Doretta Hofland, a retired teacher and volunteer, enter the items into a computer database.

Seven years have already passed since the museum opened its initial exhibit, displaying 150 years of state history.

The current exhibit recalls the Lewis and Clark expedition as it entered Montana. Other displays include the territorial militias, the Indian Wars, and the Mexican-American War of 1846.

Nearby, a display for World War I leads the viewer into World War II. Artifacts, such as a Philippine opium pipe and a Japanese rifle, give voice to the soldiers from Montana who engaged the Japanese throughout the South Pacific between 1943 and 1945.

But then the exhibit ends, as if history ends. There is no Korea, Vietnam and Panama. There is no mention of the Cold War, the Persian Gulf War, or the current battles in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Actually, the reorganization of the National Guard in 1947 onward will be incorporated in that new building," said Read. "Fort Harrison is a Cold War post. The majority of the materials ever built out here were built because of the state's Cold War missions."

Exhibit hall needed

When Duffy ran the Montana National Guard, missions overseas often sent soldiers not to Southeast Asia but to Europe, where the Soviet threat was both feared and real.

Duffy and Read, along with the museum board, want to display that period in Montana history, along with everything that followed, and they need the new exhibit hall to make it happen.

They also need the additional space to make the list as a "true" museum, allowing them to compete for museum grants and manage the facility accordingly.

"We had to have over 5,000 square feet to be considered a museum under a lot of the rules and regulations," said Read. "We'll be able to do that, and we'll be able to display everything after WWII."

Since the museum board wanted to connect the two buildings into one large facility, it had to spend money bringing the older buildings up to code. The work was recently finished thanks to $80,000 in funding from the 2007 Legislative session.

It was around that time the museum board voted to expand, venturing down the path that included hiring architects and engineers, and exploring fundraising options. They're looking for that $600,000 donor who can make the expansion possible.

"We've got a good fundraiser in Russell Ritter," Duffy said. "He raised a lot of money for Carroll College early in his career, and he was very successful in getting the Liberty House built. It can be done."

Ritter and the group discussed fundraising progress earlier this month. The board has applied for money from various trusts, including the Murdock Charitable Trust and is watching the current Legislative session closely for any signs of generosity.

Ritter admits the competition is steep among museums and other heritage programs. He told board members so but asked them to keep pushing forward.

Despite dark economic times, he said, they remain optimistic.

"We're still coming in with about $50 to $100 a day in smaller gifts, mostly to the USS Helena and the First Special Service Force," said Ritter. "We just have to keep pounding the ground for contributions."

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