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Veterans search for history at Fort Ligonier dig with Operation Nightingale USA

Mary Pickels
| Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017, 11:51 a.m.

When the Army raised its enlistment age to 42 for both the Reserve and active duty in 2006, Russell Dilling, 53, who lives near Fort Hood, Texas, was among the first to sign up.

Two of his sons also are Army veterans, including Robert Dilling, 30, of northwest Arkansas.

Earlier this week, the Dillings, along with Russell Dilling's friend, Jason Kent, 34, of northwest Indiana, also an Army veteran, joined students from Juniata College participating in an archaeology project at Fort Ligonier.

The men are part of the first United States partnership for Operation Nightingale USA, a British military initiative that teams disabled veterans with professional archaeological projects to encourage physical activity and mental agility.

Mark E. Reed, Operation Nightingale administrative director, and Jonathan Burns, director of Juniata College's Cultural Resource Institute, is overseeing the joint operation, which concludes on Aug. 4.

"My son brought me into this. He told me about Operation Nightingale. ... Most of the time I wouldn't give much thought to anything 'fort' (related). I'm enjoying coming out here and finding things ... even those not of that period," Russell Dilling says.

He and Juniata College student Luke Fultz, 27, of Huntingdon, took turns digging in one hole, pulling out an intact glass bottle that may at one time have held medicine, and some other pieces of glass.

Red flags on the lawn near the reconstructed Fort Ligonier indicated sites where a metal detector had pinged. Earth was turned, tools pried — gently — and arms stretched deep to remove hoped-for historical artifacts.

It's the third summer Burns has brought students to the site, hoping to document the location of an artillery battery that once protected the outer retrenchments at the eastern end of the 18th-century British fort.

The fort was key to British victory in the French and Indian War and has been gradually reconstructed.

"We have recovered a lead musket ball, a tack rivet, forged nails, and a horseshoe that are all likely from the period of the fort's occupation. All of these finds are roughly in line with where the line of communication (a palisade wall that would have connected the artillery battery to the fort) is located on the 1758 map," Burns says.

"It's slow going," he says.

It's unclear how often heavy machinery may have been used in the area, or construction taken place nearby, Burns says.

Sometimes what turns up — like a pocket knife, or a disintegrating pair of roller skates — is clearly from a more recent time period.

Burns' own family history — several relatives served in the military — led him to Operation Nightingale USA.

"I know the culture and I appreciate the knowledge (veterans) have," he says.

Burns cites mapping skills, regimented methodologies, a chain of command, decision making and mission-oriented field operations as among their skills.

His students also benefit, getting experience in the field and working on their finds in the college lab, then returning them to the fort.

"This year I brought back four boxes of artifacts from previous years," Burns says.

"It's just been an amazing collaboration," says Erica Nuckles, Fort Ligonier director of history and collections. "We are continuing the ongoing tradition of having archaeology done here to try to identify features of the fort yet to be reconstructed. And it's great to see archaeology in action for our visitors.

"It's extra special having these veterans here piloting the U.S. version of Operation Nightingale. It adds a whole new layer — we have the veterans at a military history site and they are getting a sense of therapy also by doing the project," she says.

The dig provides opportunities for cleaning and cataloguing to students not on the dig, and the "finds" from the dig add to the fort's collection, Nuckles says.

Even items not from the fort's era can be used to help explain archaeology to visitors, she says.

Isaac Fisher, 29, a Juniata College student, was helping plot dig sites with a metal detector, catalogue finds and work a drone employed to take aerial footage and landscape shots for the fort.

A chemistry major, he says he participated primarily out of personal curiosity.

Based in Michigan, Operation Nightingale USA is patterned after an earlier established British organization.

"Our first dig was a Roman fort in Yorkshire, England, alongside British counterparts," says Reed, a veteran of the Marines and the Navy.

Fundraising and presentations help to support the nonprofit, he says.

"Many times disabled vets fall through the cracks. ... This gets them active, body and mind," Reed says.

Army veteran Jason Kent of Indiana and his therapy dog, Lily Ann, take a break while working with Operation Nightingale USA at a Fort Ligonier dig site.

Photo by Mary Pickels

 

Kent, who served with Russell Dilling in the Army in Alaska and Iraq, and his service dog, Lily Ann, found a spot of shade after digging for a while.

After trying to cope with his own challenges following discharge, he joined the Dillings for, he says, "something different."

"Sometimes there are few options beyond (medication). This might not be something I do again. ... But it gives me one idea of some of the other programs out there," he says.

"I love history. I like using my hands, I'm very tactile. This is a good way to put this (all) together," Robert Dilling says.

He finds connections to the country's founders through learning what they did and how they lived and his own life, he says.

Robert Dilling of Arkansas, Army veteran and Russell Dilling's son, looks for historical artifacts during a recent Fort Ligonier dig.

Photo by Mary Pickels

 

"The foundation of military is trust. ... That never changes. We (his Army unit) put up walls, just like these guys," says the former Army medic.

University of Connecticut archaeology student Caitlin Kingston worked with the veterans, helping with techniques and identification.

"She oversees the technical aspects, makes sure they color within the lines," Reed says.

Fox Chapel resident Phoebe Thompson, an archaeology minor at Pomona College in California, also spent a day volunteering at the site.

The week included field trips to Fort Ligonier's lesser known sister fort, Fort Dewart, in Somerset County at the Allegheny Front, and to the Flight 93 National Memorial near Shanksville.

"The servicemen are from out of state and might not have had the opportunity to visit the crash site — a major factor in their enlistment," Burns says.

Mary Pickels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5401 or mpickels@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MaryPickels.

Russell Dilling studies an intact bottle unearthed during a recent dig at Fort Ligonier.
Mary Pickels | Tribune-Review
Russell Dilling studies an intact bottle unearthed during a recent dig at Fort Ligonier.
Luke Fultz of Huntington holds a small bird's head and another piece of ceramic found during a recent dig at Fort Ligonier.
Mary Pickels | Tribune-Review
Luke Fultz of Huntington holds a small bird's head and another piece of ceramic found during a recent dig at Fort Ligonier.
Army veteran Russell Dilling of Texas and Luke Fultz of Huntington dig deep at Fort Ligonier.
Mary Pickels | Tribune-Review
Army veteran Russell Dilling of Texas and Luke Fultz of Huntington dig deep at Fort Ligonier.
Army veteran Robert Dilling of Arkansas works with University of Connecticut archaeology student Caitlan Kingston and Fox Chapel resident and Pomona College student Phoebe Thompson during a Fort Ligonier dig
Mary Pickels | Tribune-Review
Army veteran Robert Dilling of Arkansas works with University of Connecticut archaeology student Caitlan Kingston and Fox Chapel resident and Pomona College student Phoebe Thompson during a Fort Ligonier dig
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