Shirley Olgeirson is retired from the North Dakota National Guard.
Well, sort of retired.
She’s a veteran of Desert Storm.
She served with the military police, public affairs, medical service core, and logistics.
Her resume is a long one.
She retired in 2002.
But not long ago, the Guard called her back for one more mission — one unlike any other: Curator of history.
Giving a voice to the past.
“There’s lots of history to be found in every single box.,” Olgeirson explains. “There’s a piece of somebody’s life, and the story of the National Guard.
It was about a year ago that Shirley Olgeirson became the National Guard Historian
Guard leaders saw a need to preserve what’s been buried deep in storage for years, both at the Armory and Fraine Barracks.
And they knew who they needed to bring order to the collected chaos.
“It is an adventure — what’s in this box? It’s somebody’s story, somebody’s part of History, it’s exciting but enormous,” says Olgeirson.
She’s basically digging through the rubble of time: Hundreds and hundreds of boxes, items on shelves, weapons in vaults, books, pictures, letters — all ignored for years.
Some artifacts date back to 1883 — the beginning of the Guard in North Dakota, and six years before statehood.
“This is his chair from WWII that made it through,” Olgeirson explains, pointing to an invaluable wooden chair used by Robert Carlson. He and other North Dakota Guardsmen were among those storming Utah Beach on D-Day.
“They landed on Utah beach. Fired almost 90 thousand rounds against the Nazis during world war II and this is his chair!” she says. And there’s no putting a price on this ZPU — an antiaircraft gun, Russian-made, but used by the Iraqis during Desert Storm.
Behind that, a caisson — a cart that carries artillery ammunition. People who weren’t in the military might recognize the term, “caisson,” from the Army song, “The Caissons Go Rolling Along.
“The caisson and wheels could be connected together to haul cannons,” Olgeirson notes.
She says the value of these and other artifacts is not in the physical items themselves, but in the stories surrounding them: How were they used, where and when were they used, who were the people using them?
If only these objects could talk.”I think the stories that could be told would be mind-boggling,” Olgeirson muses.
But, of course, they can’t physically talk. So, it’s up to Olgeirson to tease out a voice: Every piece is taken out of storage and researched, logged and inventoried.
It’s a slow process.
You might even call it a never-ending process because North Dakota soldiers are still making history today.
“It’s such a rich timeline,” says Olgeirson. “From the beginning, formed before statehood, up until now with our current deployments, with our involvement with the community — documenting our response to COVID is a big thing. Helping the citizens of the state on everything from floods and fires to snowstorms to wars — the National Guard is there.”
And Olgeirson is there, too, documenting every move.
She says there is an amazing amount of pressure to make sure the stories of the military live on — that the ‘Veterans’ Voices’ are heard for years to come.
But here’s the kicker: After those boxes are researched and inventoried, the sad fact is the items are put back in boxes and placed back on shelves.
The National Guard is currently in talks and in the beginning phases of securing funding to build a museum for the items to, one day, be on display.
And a true military museum is Shirley Olgeirson’s ultimate dream — a nice end to her current mission.