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Reliving the past: War reenactors hope to educate visitors

The 2023 encampment at the Bantam Jeep Heritage Festival. This year's event is June7 to 9. Dennis Yerkey/Bantam Jeep Heritage Festival

A major attraction at the Bantam Jeep Heritage Festival this year will be the military encampment. Military reenactors will set up displays demonstrating what life was like for American soldiers during a number of different wars.

James Donze, also known as JimBob, is the lead organizer for the encampment. He said he has been with the festival since its beginning.

“I’ve been a Jeep guy all my life, ever since I was in the Navy,” he said. “I heard about the festival, got online and signed up for whatever they needed.”

Donze is dedicated to the encampment. He said he feels a sense of camaraderie with the people who come out to Cooper's Lake.

“I like that they all come and set up,” he said. “It makes you go back in time. The authenticity of it all and the people, I consider them my Jeep family and my lovely wife lets me go play.”

Among the participating groups is the First Frontier Mechanized Cavalry, a military vehicle collector group with members from Western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio and northern West Virginia.

The group, which has been involved with the Jeep festival since its start, will show visitors some vehicles that were active during both World Wars, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We want festivalgoers to learn about the history of the vehicles and of what veterans had to go through,” said Patrick Henry Nicholson, the group’s president.

Of all the vehicles Nicholson’s group shows off, he said the Jeeps always are the biggest crowd-pleaser.

“I love sharing the history and showing the vehicles,” Nicholson said, “so people learn where the Jeep actually started.”

“The encampment is always memorable,” Nicholson said.

Jon Baker will be at the encampment with a display of the living conditions of the 7th Cavalry during the Vietnam War.

Baker’s display will include medical and field equipment, weapons, and communications from the era.

“I’m also hoping we’ll have a M151A2 Mutt,” he said.

The M151 was a Jeep used by the Army from the 1960s to the 1990s before the transition to the HMMWV (High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle), colloquially known as the Humvee.

“We want people to learn what patriotism is, what Americanism is,” Baker said. “To have pride about the United States, right and wrong, it’s still the greatest nation in the world.”

Baker is a veteran, having served in the Army Reserves as a military police officer from 1986 to 1990 before joining the Pennsylvania National Guard Infantry. He later transferred back to the Army Reserves in 1992 and left in 1995. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he reenlisted in 2002 and was deployed to Iraq for a year.

Baker said he has post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his time in Iraq, and reenacting helps him deal with his situation.

“With my PTSD, I’m sort of a hermit,” Baker explained. “Reenacting is a form of self-therapy, because I’m disconnected from what’s happening in the rest of the world. Because I’m doing something educational, it keeps me connected with 2024 in that I’m explaining details of the past with people in the present. I’m disconnected and I’m connected.”

The 2023 encampment at the Bantam Jeep Heritage Festival. This year's event is June7 to 9, 2024. Dennis Yerkey/Bantam Jeep Heritage Festival

Baker said he enjoys the feeling of going back in time and plans on playing the part of a U.S. soldier in Vietnam to a T.

“I will not talk modern politics. I will not talk modern presidents,” he said. “If they have electricity up there, I will be playing all ’60s music.

Nathan Smith also will have a display representing the 82nd Airborne 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment during World War II, which was attached for Operation Neptune in 1944 as part of the Normandy landings in France, also known as D-Day.

“We like to portray the combat parachute regiment during WWII to help educate and share what we know about WWII,” Smith said.

Smith’s group will have a WWII-era 1943 Ford GPW Jeep on display, as well as a large assortment of weapons and a parachute display to show how it was worn and how the paratroopers looked during D-Day.

“I really like the time period of the war and learning about it,” Smith said. “I like telling people about a large-scale event that no one person can know everything about.”

The 2023 encampment at the Bantam Jeep Heritage Festival. This year's event is June7 to 9. Dennis Yerkey/Bantam Jeep Heritage Festival

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