Military in the Mojave

Military in the Mojave Highlights Military Culture in the High Desert

A battered Purple Heart abandoned near an Oro Grande graveyard, photographs of Apple Valley’s rugged war hero and the elegant uniform of a George Air Force Base nurse lieutenant are among the historic artifacts in the County Museum exhibit Military in the Mojave: An Enduring Legacy of Service in the High Desert.

The exhibit, on display at the Victor Valley Museum in Apple Valley, came to be at the request of local community members who wanted to see a representation of the impact the United States military had on the High Desert.

Military in the Mojave is presented in both English and Spanish and highlights the roles of women and the Latino community’s contributions to the military in the High Desert.

The exhibit won an Achievement Award from the National Association of Counties (NACo). The award was one of 82 won by San Bernardino County, which won the most 2022 NACo Awards of any other county in the United States. The County Museum also won three additional NACo Awards this year.

“The military and those serving and those employed by the military have had a huge impact on our region both economically and culturally,” said Jennifer Dickerson, a history curator for the County Museum. “The fact that this exhibit won a NACo award really indicates how special this region is and how this region’s history is really rich and diverse and NACo recognized that.”

George Air Force Base in Victorville, Fort Irwin in the Calico Mountains and the Marine Corps Logistics Base in Barstow made a mark on the history and values of the region and created a legacy of patriotism and service, Dickerson said.

On display are photographs and stories about Captain Joseph McConnell, a national war hero who flew 60 missions during World War II who was so beloved and revered that the community of Apple Valley built a home for him and his wife and children. During the Korean War, in only four months, he downed 16 enemy aircraft and was the first triple jet ace, a title awarded to military aviators who have shot down at least 15 enemy aircraft. Tragically In 1954, he died during a routine test flight when his plane malfunctioned.

The Purple Heart, left abandoned near the Oro Grande cemetery, is on display and was donated to the Museum by Felix Diaz, a community leader and author who recently passed away. Diaz, who was also an Army veteran, wrote about the military contributions and sacrifices made by Latinos in the High Desert. The medal belonged to Army Lt. Manuel Rodriguez, who was the first casualty in World War II from San Bernardino County.

The neatly pressed dress uniform with a shiny silver cummerbund of Lt. Genevieve Casey is also on display. Casey was the chief nurse at George Air Force Base who traveled all over the world and overcame gender inequality in the military to advance in her career.

“History is not one dimensional,” Dickerson said. “It’s important to highlight that diversity because it tells a complete story. It tells us who they were, how they shaped our county. Focusing on different groups like the Latino community and women in the military, it not only showcases where we came from but it makes the museum more interesting and more accessible to everybody.”

Dickerson, a seven-year County employee, has a master’s degree in American history. She fell in love with museums as a child when her class took field trips to local museums in Southern California. Dickerson and the Museum’s curator of earth sciences and anthropology worked together with members of the High Desert community to put the Military in the Mojave exhibit together.

“I love working for the County. I love being a museum curator. It brings the best of two worlds together I get to be a public servant and I get to work with and for the community that I live in,” Dickerson said. “I also get to showcase these unique stories that people may not have heard of. We are teaching people things, but we are also engaging them and showing them, this is what San Bernardino County is and this is how we have built such a wonderful region. It is because of this rich history. It is because of the people that came before us.”

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The Victor Valley Museum is at 11873 Apple Valley Rd. in Apple Valley. The Museum is open Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.