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For love of country: Retired airman restores veterans museum

Photo by Tori Boone

Photo by Tori Boone

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Paul Pickard has always been a go-get-'em type of guy.

In 1950, shortly after graduating from high school, he enlisted in the Air Force so he wouldn't be forced into the Army.

A few years later, while home on leave, he struck up a conversation with a woman he had known since grade school, though the two didn't really speak much. All because she waltzed into the restaurant wearing her Navy uniform.

"She was voted the best looking girl in school, and that uniform only made it better," Pickard said, reminiscing on that encounter in upstate New York.

About five years ago, Pickard, 78, along with a handful of fellow American Legion Snellville Post 232 members, dove head first into another mission: restoring the Gwinnett Veterans Memorial Museum inside the historic Gwinnett County Courthouse.

Pickard, who was once upset because he didn't get shipped off to war, didn't want to see the museum -- then just one room holding a few pieces of memorabilia -- fade away.

"People forget," he said. "Especially the young folks."

So Pickard and his comrades set out to not only maintain the museum, but to expand it.

The Gwinnett County Parks and Recreation Department, he said, was kind enough to build elaborate display cases that now house more than 900 military and service-related items.

The one room has turned into four, each commemorating a different era of American combat. Crossing the threshold of any one of these four doors is akin to taking a step back in time. There's weaponry, uniforms, pictures and biographies of fallen service members.

On one wall hangs an encased American flag, stained and tattered by shrapnel and time, but glorious. The placard says it once flew proudly over Iwo Jima, rescued only after the island was captured from the Japanese in 1945.

"It's unbelievable what people will bring in here," Pickard said. "Honest to God, it just baffles me."

Like recently, when a Snellville woman loaned the museum an official Georgia State Memorial Book, listing all Gwinnettians killed in action or who died of illness during World War I.

One of those names is Lt. George Harold Byrd of Lawrenceville, who served with Fort Gordon's 327th Infantry, 82nd Division. Byrd was killed, according to the book, on Oct. 11, 1918, by a "high explosive shell fragment." He was 28.

His body, as it turns out, rests just outside the museum that now honors him and those like him.

Pickard, who spent most of his 41-year-career (both as a reservist and on active duty) as an X-ray technician, never actually saw combat, he said, though his tours took him all over the world: England, Germany, Japan, Saudi Arabia.

At the tender age of 58, his patriotism led him to leave the cush reserves for another active-duty tour when Desert Storm kicked off, because "it was the right thing to do."

His wife, Evelyn, thought he had been called up.

"I didn't tell her I volunteered until I got back," Pickard said with a laugh.

"But she was OK with it; she feels the same way I do about this country."

Evelyn and Pickard, you see, have been married for 55 years. They have six grown children and 13 grandchildren. It was she who stole his heart inside that Newark, N.Y., establishment so many years ago.

He knew the moment he saw her, he said, that he had to have her.

Like he knows today, as he sits wearing an American Legion shirt and a "Retired Air Force" cap -- complete with a chief master sergeant insignia -- that this mission is perhaps as important as any he has set out on.

It's the right thing to do.

"The mission is to keep the museum open and to remind people that freedom isn't free," he said.