FORT LEE, Va. -- A massive crowd of supporters – many of them veterans and top-ranking military leaders – joined the Fort Lee community Nov. 2 to celebrate the grand reopening of the Army Women’s Museum exhibit gallery.

The ribbon-cutting ceremony included speeches from Maj. Gen. Rodney D. Fogg, CASCOM and Fort Lee commanding general; Dr. Francoise B. Bonnell, AWM director; Lt. Gen. Gwen Bingham, the Army’s Assistant Chief of Staff, Installation Management; and Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, commanding general of Training and Doctrine Command.

Bonnell said the museum underwent a $3 million expansion and renovation to its facility and gallery. The exhibit space more than doubled from 5,000-to-11,000 square feet. The groundbreaking for the expansion was in February 2017 and the ensuing project was “truly a team effort” by Fort Lee and other military and private organizations.

The physical expansion was completed late last year and work on the renovation to the gallery began. Highlights of the new exhibit space include five teaching galleries that cover contributions from 1775 to present day.

The extraordinary work by many agencies moved along, but it didn’t always proceed as expected, said Bonnell. She shared a story of the largest exhibit, a OH-58 Kiowa. Fogg, then the Quartermaster General, suggested it to her when she was searching for a helicopter that would fit through the doors. After finding one from another museum, Bonnell thought it would be a simple process of getting into the building from its spot out in the parking lot – two hours tops.

“One small obstacle stood between the helicopter becoming a signature museum piece on the inside or an outdoor exhibit,” she said. “I had failed to take into account the height of the rotor mast. Being a former Ordnance officer, I found the technical manual and thought, ‘this can’t be too hard.’”

Bonnell received some help from the Logistics Readiness Center-Lee, the Directorate of Public Works and a detail of QM Soldiers, and the team went to work on getting the exhibit inside.

“We all thought it would only be an hour or so to lower the mast, another 30 minutes to move it into the museum and then raise the mast again and add the rotors,” she said. “Needless to say, it didn’t quite work out that way. Two and a half days later, a lot of hard work, elbow grease, and a detail of Soldiers, we were able to finally get it through the museum doors.

“This story shows that through every step of the gallery expansion and redesign, it took the collective effort and cooperation of many, many people to bring our vision to life,” Bonnell observed.

When Fogg took the podium at the ceremony, he said he is grateful for the opportunity to recognize how important women in uniform are to all Soldiers.

“As a career logistics officer, I have led and been led by great women NCOs, warrant officers and officers,” he said. “In fact, I stand here in great part due to many (female) leaders. I’ve been inspired and honored to be in combat and lead outstanding female Soldiers and pin Purple Hearts and Combat Action Badges on them.”

Bingham – a highly regarded former Fort Lee garrison commander and Quartermaster General – was intimately involved with a special exhibit in the museum that features female Army leaders, both Soldiers and civilians. She said she is humbled and grateful to be part of the momentous occasion.

“(This event) is more than just about the brick and mortar; it’s about the tens of thousands of lives that will be positively changed by the courageous women whose stories told will enrich the lives of those who read here and come to know of them,” she said. “Telling and sharing the stories of Army women is the true legacy that we celebrate today. It is a gift that will inspire millennials, post-millennials and future generations to come.”

During Townsend’s speech, he asked all female veterans to stand to be recognized and said he is proud of the opportunity to speak at the event.

“This reopening is a celebration of America’s history; it’s a celebration of our Army’s history; and yes, it’s a celebration of the history of women in America’s Army,” he said. “(It’s about) young women who have answered the call since the very founding of our country – the call to service; and (it’s about) women Soldiers and leaders who live by our Army’s values and our warrior ethos.”

Townsend said it was great to see all the female Soldiers and women veterans at the event.

“This museum is a celebration of your service, our Army and our nation,” he said. “I know that many of you could have never dreamed how far we have come today. But we note that there is still work to be done.”

Earlier in the day, Bonnell and several others – Brig. Gen. Douglas M. McBride Jr., Quartermaster General; retired Lt. Col. Delinda Creal, Friends of the AWM Association president; and Brig. Gen. Heidi J. Hoyle, Chief of Ordnance – officially unveiled the new 14th Army Band (Women’s Army Corps) Memorial as part of the renovation to the garden outside the museum.

“We are highlighting the transformation of a beautiful garden,” Bonnell said. “(It) has always been an important part of our footprint. When the museum was built at Fort McClellan, Ala., the garden was an integral part of the plan. In fact, Pallas Athena, who now stands in front of the museum, was in the garden with the original WAC band monument at Fort McClellan.”

When the AWM was moved to Fort Lee in 1999, the garden was up for discussion, but was ultimately included in the plans. When the museum staff began working on the current redesign, they thought the garden would be a great place for outdoor exhibits, said Bonnell. Several organizations donated money to create historical panels and plaques to teach the public about women’s contributions to the Army.

Hoyle was the keynote speaker for the garden dedication. “It didn’t really hit me until I walked across the street from CASCOM headquarters for this event,” she said after her remarks. “I looked at this as just another event on my calendar, but my emotions and pride began to swell as soon as I arrived on-site. There’s a lot of heritage here. I was surprised at how far women’s roles in the Army go back – we’ve always been there in some form.”

The Army Women's Museum is located at 2100 A Avenue, near the Lee Avenue Gate. It is open from 8 a.m. - 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Everything is free and open to the public: admission, tours, programs and the research library. Tours are offered free to accommodate any size groups.

Community members can follow museum activities and see pictures of its exhibits, artifacts and outreach events, at www.facebook.com/usarmywomensmuseum.