Historian breathes life into Buckley’s past
By Airman 1st Class Samantha Saulsbury, 460th Space Wing Public Affairs
/ Published November 14, 2013
BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- A military culture thriving with rich, historical traditions and values needs someone with true passion to document it.
Shawn Riem, 460th Space Wing historian, is a woman bursting with eagerness and zest who brings an age-old job title to life.
"When people find out I'm the historian, they say one of two things: 'I didn't know we had a historian,' or, 'You don't look like any historian I've ever seen,'" Riem said. "I want to make sure people know I don't wear sweaters with cats on them. I don't look like your typical historian."
Riem's schedule includes hours of researching past occasions such as historical moments, mission changes and policy updates, as well as the benefits and challenges that came with them. An annual history is written, documenting the year's activities such as changes of command, when the flag is put at half-staff and anything else that may be significant.
"Typically, I'm just nosy," said Riem, a former Army sergeant. "I'm always emailing people saying 'Hey, I heard about this. Can you tell me more about it?' I just pester everybody."
The primary product of an Air Force historian is the history of the wing to which they are attached. An incredibly firm believer in the significance of her job, Riem refuses to take any event lightly.
"One of my favorite quotes says that 'It never looks like history when you're living through it,' and I think that kind of sums it up," Riem explained. "There are some events that you immediately know are history, but there are other things that you don't really think about at that level.
"There are just some things that happen that you don't know what the impacts will be yet," Riem said. "A good historian will be able to get that 'spidey-sense,' that tingle like 'OK, this could be something.' So you write about it. It's going to be important to somebody."
Although she is adamant about loving every aspect of her job, she jokingly equates it to being a mother asked who her favorite child is. However, it's obvious by her excitement what part truly brings her joy.
"Finding the old stuff, or saving the old stuff, is really important to me," Riem explained. "If they can see and touch history, then it makes it real. I love being able to collect that."
Two letters that were written by a mother to her son in 1944 when Buckley Air Force Base was a World War II basic training field hang on the wall in the headquarters building. They were lost in the mail and finally received by the base in 2004.
"This is why I love my job. I'm the advocate for that history," Riem said. "There is so much more out there. There are so many untold stories."
Riem strongly encourages everyone to contact a unit historian if they do come across any old documents, even if they are not directly related to the base.
"If you think it's important, then it's important," Riem stated. "A woman got in touch with me a few weeks ago about pictures from her father-in-law who was in World War II, and they are photographs when they were liberating the camps during the Holocaust."
It isn't only the small fragments of the past, but also the large, half-million dollar items that she hopes create strength in the mission.
"I worked for two years trying to get this half-size scale model of a (Defense Support Program) satellite from the National Museum of the Air Force," Riem declared. "I want these Airmen who are working with this system to be able to see what they're working with. It's just this tangible piece of our history. I can just see the impact it will have on the wing."
Mark Nelson, Air Reserve Personnel Center historian, also strongly believes touchable pieces of history are vital to connecting service members to the mission.
"We have received pieces of our old facility on Lowry that is being demolished. ... The staff members who have served in that place wanted something that represented their connection," said Nelson. "Tangible pieces of history allow us to make that connection and makes history more personal."
Without documenting the past, it's may be difficult to prepare for the future.
Riem cringes when people say if you don't know history, you're doomed to repeat it, she said, "because technically that's not true.
"If you don't know where you where you come from, you're not going to understand where you are," she said.
History documents are used to look at how an organization reacted to something, how an event was handled or how a new policy was implemented. Riem admitted this isn't always the most entertaining topic, but it's important for gauging trends or documenting lessons learned.
"That's one of the reasons why it's so important for us to be impartial and accurate and complete in what we're discussing," Riem said, "because they're going to want to know the full story. We can't spin it in a way that paints the wing in a positive light if it's a negative event; we have to just tell them the facts. That's why what we do is important."
Riem's job isn't only to keep track of past events, but to actively research and offer historical considerations for future problems. Without her dedication, the Air Force's historical traditions and values could be lost in time.