Excess uniforms help history class come alive

By Jake Joy DLA Disposition Services

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“Were our ancestors stupid?”

It’s 1969. The Hudson River Valley, north of New York City. Joe Ryan is a newly minted middle school history teacher, trying to explain Revolutionary War concepts to 12 year olds. His available visual aides are illustrations of manicured British Redcoats standing in a long line, trading musket volleys 25 yards from a line of amateur American militiamen. To the eye of a tweener who has consumed John Wayne war flicks and perhaps seen the nightly news dispatches from the jungles of Vietnam, it’s an understandable question. Why are soldiers just standing directly in front of each other, allowing an enemy to aim and shoot at them? In simpler terms:

“Were our ancestors stupid?”

According to Ryan, his attempt to answer that very question helped launch a decades-long project that eventually became the Living History Education Foundation, a nonprofit entity that relies on DLA Disposition Services and its military excess donation authority to help American history come alive for teachers and students alike.

To help students grasp the Revolutionary War era, Ryan had shop class pupils create wooden musket replicas. Uniforms and flags were crafted by students in home economics courses – with “no historical accuracy at all,” he admits. The stockpile of stuff grew. First, he had students recreate the Battles of Lexington and Concord, fought on April 19, 1775. Then he added Paul Revere’s Ride, which preceded the battle and let everyone know “the Redcoats are coming!” Later, he added a reenactment of the Battle of Bunker Hill, fought on June 17 of the same year, all with the intent of helping kids better understand this formational struggle to create the United States of America.

That chapter of Ryan’s history syllabus continued to become more elaborate and developed. Then, in the late 1970s, Ryan became aware of the U.S. Army 3d Infantry. Known as the “Old Guard,” the Washington, D.C.-based regiment is the oldest active duty unit in the country, serving continuously since 1784. Among myriad duties, its members constitute the official Army Honor Guard, escort the president and maintain vigil at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Parts of the regiment also regularly attend ceremonial events decked out in the early colonial uniform pattern approved for all Continental Army infantry by none other than George Washington.

According to the Army, that uniform consisted of “a blue coat faced with a red collar, cuffs and lapels, white buttons and lining, long-fitting overalls, and a black cocked hat with cockade.”

Any veteran who has had to pass uniform inspections will tell you that eventually, you’ve just got to replace items. Whites turn yellow. Items get beat up and dingy, discolored from the wash. Attention to those details is particularly crucial if you’re in one of the Army’s premier ceremonial groups, where a uniform looking any condition other than pristine is a no-go.

“What do they do with those uniforms?” Ryan said he wondered. He said he used some connections, made some calls, and got his answer. “They really just get discarded.”

After discussing the project with regimental leadership, Ryan said he and the mighty U.S. Army reached an agreement: Come on down and “we’ll just load the old uniforms onto your bus.” Done deal. And all of a sudden, his student reenactors were looking pretty legit, straight out of the 18th Century.  

Eventually, the Army started transferring its excess uniforms, cartridge boxes, covers, dress swords and other period reproductions to the Defense Logistics Agency. Ryan signed up to requisition items and started working with agency personnel at the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office, or DRMO, in Albany, New York.

“This went on for years, off and on, off and on,” Ryan said. “It’s been the people in DLA, all along, who have made it work. … and literally thousands of kids have been affected through this program.”

Right around the turn of the millennium, Ryan created the foundation. Since its inception, as of last count, 2,811 educators have attended a Living History session, where they typically garrison as Continental Army members, setting up tents, performing drills and learning about their muskets. Once they’ve experienced a taste of the Revolutionary era, they are invited to check out the materials from Living History to use in their own classrooms, so their students can have an immersive lesson as well.   

Ryan said a great part of his program’s success was due to the various agency representatives he has worked with through the years who have helped him to keep a pipeline of historical items flowing to Living History.

“If there’s something you can use, and you’re a legitimate organization, there are people in DLA who will really work with you, and I think that’s pretty cool,” Ryan said. “They have real people who – and you have to give them credit – who will talk to you on the phone and tell you how to [requisition], they’ll tell you ‘here’s how it’s done, did you fill out this form? No? Well, here’s how you do it.’ There’s really some dynamic people in DLA.”