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  • A Military Shadow Box is a Time Capsule of a Military Journey
  • Author avatar
    Steven Alvarez

A Military Shadow Box is a Time Capsule of a Military Journey

Military Shadow Box Ideas
I spent 26 years wearing a U.S. military uniform in places like South Korea and West Germany during the height of the Cold War, fighting the drug war along the U.S. border in the 1990s, and later in Iraq to support the Global War on Terror in the early 2000s. I served on active duty, in the National Guard and the Reserve, and as an enlisted man and later as an officer. I spent time in the U.S. Air Force and in the U.S. Army before finally deciding to drop my papers and head to military retirement. 

As I approached my separation day in 2010, my commander broached the topic of a retirement ceremony. To me, it seemed unnecessary. I had attended what seemed like a million retirement ceremonies and in all of them the retiree seemed like a wise elder. Most were sergeants major, colonels, generals or chief warrant officers five. A lowly major didn’t seem to fit the mold for a retirement ceremony, in my opinion. I had seen others retire at lesser ranks, but it just wasn’t something I wanted for myself. So, I decided to forego the formal ceremony and I opted to instead go unceremoniously into the sunset. 

A couple of months after my retirement was finalized, I received a medal in the mail from my former commander as well as a memento given to me by the men and women of the unit. I put the memento in my office, but when I went to toss the medal into a plastic bin, I realized I had a lot of awards uncaringly thrown into a container similar to the ones where my kids stowed their toys. That’s when I started to think about organizing my military awards and possibly putting together a military shadow box that would capture my military service. 

In many military retirement ceremonies that I attended, the commander presented a token of appreciation from the unit or a military shadow box, sometimes both, to the retiring military member. In my case, I was happy to hang up my boots and move on, but a few months after my retirement, staring at the bin full of medals, I wondered if I should do something more meaningful with the awards that I had earned.

Like me, my old unit had moved on and they had already given me a wonderful retirement gift and medal. There was no turning back. I would not get a military shadow box from them despite my change of mind. It was also clear that my family would not put together something like a military shadow box because they knew me as a man who didn’t serve for or value medals (that’s why they were in a plastic bin). Therefore, as I stood there looking at the bin full of awards, it dawned on me that I should organize these awards because they were from service to the nation and that service had also been done by my family. Those awards belonged to them as much as they did to me. At that moment I decided I would get a military shadow box. But where would I start? 

The history of military shadow boxes, like some other military customs and courtesies, cannot be traced or attributed to any particular source. I’m not a big fan of spreading misinformation, so unless there is an attributable source, those myths won’t get repeated here. I reached out the U.S. Army’s Center of Military History and due to renovations at their facility, they are unable to respond to queries until July 2020 and a leading military historian for the Smithsonian Institute told me he does not have any information about the origins of military shadow boxes, so check back here and we might have a creditable source that knows the origins of the military shadow box. Until then, without an attributed source, all information concerning the origins of military shadow boxes is just internet regurgitation.

Military Shadow Box with Flag
While I did not own a traditional military shadow box during my 26 years in uniform, I did have a military shadow box with flag that I received when I became a commissioned officer. It held my second lieutenant bars and a certificate from the U.S. Capitol. My path from the enlisted to the commissioned ranks had been long and arduous, so to celebrate, I had an American flag flown over the U.S. Capitol to commemorate my officer commission date. For some people receiving an officer appointment might not seem like a big deal, but for me, the first generation born here to immigrant parents, becoming an officer was a major milestone and it represented a significant commitment in the name of my family. It was a special day for me. 

That U.S. flag flown over the U.S. Capitol in 1996 was stored in a military shadow box until 2004 when I took it out of its case and brought it with me to Iraq. It was with me during my entire yearlong tour at Phoenix Base in Baghdad, Iraq. When I returned from the war, the flag was placed back into the military shadow box. 

I started to think that maybe my military shadow box with a flag could be combined with the medals in the bin and I could make a rather large military shadow box with flag that would include not just the flag, but all of my awards. As I thought about my options, I considered what I had seen over the years when co-workers and peers retired or when their time in the service came to an end. 

Military Uniform Shadow Box
During my career, I had been to plenty of ceremonies. When I served at the Pentagon, I remember attending a retirement ceremony where a senior master sergeant was presented with a military uniform shadow box that was absolutely beautiful. I had never seen one before and it had the Class A jacket and pants from the NCO’s uniform in a large military uniform shadow box. Half of her jacket was in the case with all of her ribbons, badges, stripes, and awards. It also had an engraved NCO sword. It was impressive and it would definitely be a conversation piece, but given I had served in two branches of the military, which uniform should I choose? And during my career, I had worn three different utility uniforms and four different types of Class A uniforms. Which uniform would I pick to put into my military uniform shadow box? Since I had a lot of varying uniforms in my past, I started thinking about the practicality of a military shadow box chest.

Military Shadow Box Chest
Years ago, when I was interviewing a military veteran who had fought in World War II, he showed me his military shadow box chest and it was like walking into a military museum. He had transformed his military footlocker into a portable, hands-on, memorial of his war service. In it, he had pictures of his fallen friends, a Japanese bayonet from when he served with Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines, boots he had worn on violent beach landings in the Pacific theater and other revered items. Today, most military personnel are issued duffel bags, but military shadow box chests can still be purchased to protect the valuable items military members accrue throughout their career. Whereas military shadow boxes focus more on representing a person’s military service, a military shadow box chest can preserve military items for decades if created by professionals. Which brings me to a point.

How to Make a Military Shadow Box
I thought about building my own military shadow box. I became enamored with the idea of finding a high-quality wood like cherry, mahogany, or oak, and then devotedly spending time in a shop designing it, cutting it, assembling it, and making it my own. Just like my career, I would take care to find the right pieces, assemble it, smooth out the rough patches, carving here and there, and ultimately try to piece together something of value. I had taken woodworking in junior high school, so I knew my way around a wood shop, but it had been decades since I had worked on anything significant. And back in the day, I made felt-lined jewelry boxes that didn’t close properly, kitchen cutting boards that were a bit rough around the edges and picture frames that weren’t exactly square; nothing as elaborate as a military shadow box. 

Because I had invested so much of my time and my life into the military, it made sense that I should take the time and build something from scratch, but as I studied plans and examined the time commitment, costs, required skills and tools, it just didn’t make sense for me to build my own military shadow box. Precisely because I had invested so much time into my military service, I started thinking that my time in uniform was worthy of having a professional create something I could be proud of that reflected my 26 years in uniform. I didn’t want my military service to be represented by something that looked like a seventh grader had made it. I wanted a professionally made military shadow box.

Military Retirement Shadow Box
I collected my DD Form 214s, all of my awards, medals, badges, from the bin, and corresponding orders and memorandums, and I planned to create my own military retirement shadow box. I had 21 medals and about five different professional, combat and service badges, as well as NCO stripes and eight or nine rows of ribbons, so the military retirement shadow box couldn’t be too small. I went to a local craft store and looked at the military retirement shadow boxes in their inventory, but the quality seemed cheap for the special items I wanted to showcase and the wood frame was low-end pressed imitation wood. Not to mention, I had to figure out how to mount all of my awards into the military retirement shadow box—which meant the awards that had actually been presented to me, for which I had renewed personal value—would have to have fasteners attached to them. Not to mention, laying out this military retirement shadow box required some level of creativity and an ability to work with crafts—cutting, gluing, engraving, shaping, designing. That’s not my forte.

I wanted to give myself something nice for 26 years-worth of military service. I did not have a retirement ceremony, nor did I take a special vacation somewhere to celebrate my retirement milestone. I knew if it was up to me the end product would not be very good if I was making it, so after a lot of thought about how to honor my military service, I decided a military retirement shadow box would be perfect for my home office and I would leave it up to the pros.

Custom Military Shadow Boxes
The great thing about military shadow boxes is that you do not have to retire in order to have one. Any veteran who is proud of their service can get a custom military shadow box made to show their military pride. I’ve come to realize that it is important because almost everyone can serve, but most do not.

In my case, I told one of my war buddies I was thinking about putting together a military shadow box, and he recommended I trust USAMM to build a custom military shadow box for me.

USAMM asked me to send them a list of everything I had earned and my friend ordered a custom military shadow box that included everything from my service in the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force. My war buddy gifted the military retirement shadow box to me as a retirement present.

Today, the custom military shadow box hangs in my home office over my officer commission, testimony to all I have seen and done for this country, but it also represents the bonds that are forged by those who serve together in war and peace.

That’s something to be proud of and something that doesn’t belong in a bin.

  • Author avatar
    Steven Alvarez