Col. Andrew Scott DeJesse is returning to campus this week to share his story.
You may have heard of the Monuments Men.
Thanks in part to the success of the 2009 book and the 2014 movie, starring George Clooney, Matt Damon and others, this arm of the U.S. Army that deals with cultural preservation is better known today than it used to be.
That said, you probably don't know a Red Raider is almost singlehandedly responsible for that fact.
But Col. Andrew Scott DeJesse, the 38G program director and the Department of Defense's senior 6V heritage preservation officer – what today we'd call a Monuments Officer – is coming back to Texas Tech University this week to tell that story.
As a young man, DeJesse had two separate tracks in his life which ran parallel to one another, never crossing and, to him, never likely to cross – they were simply too different from one another.
He was an artist. He received his bachelor's degree in illustration from the University of Arts in Philadelphia in 1993 and worked in New York as an art director in pharmaceutical advertising.
He was also a soldier. He pursued Army ROTC through college, focusing on combat arms – warfighting, in a nutshell – and was commissioned as a second lieutenant into the U.S. Army upon graduation.
“The two worlds were kind of separate,” he recalls.
The mid and late 1990s were relatively peaceful times for our nation, so as the years passed, DeJesse began to shift out of the military, focusing his full efforts on his art career and personal life. He met and married his wife, Elizabeth, and they moved to her hometown of Amarillo.
And then 9/11 happened.
“I still held my military commission; I had a uniform hanging in the closet, and I could go and serve,” he says. “And, of course, I thought it was my duty.”
DeJesse decided to return to active service.
He was placed in a civil affairs unit, dealing with local communities and working through problems, but then his commander surprised him.
“Hey, I saw your resume,” he said. “In our type of work, we're responsible for protecting art during war. Have you ever heard of that?”
“No,” DeJesse admitted. “I've never heard of that.”
In that moment, his two very separate worlds merged.
The Monuments Men and Women
During World War II, there was a specialized group of about 350 military members with expertise in museum curation, conservation, art history, the arts, archeology or archival sciences. Their job, called the Museum Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) mission, was to protect heritage sites and recover major art works that had been looted by the Nazis as they invaded Europe. These service members came to be known as Monuments Men and Women.
After World War II, most of the Monuments Men and Women returned home. A few stayed in the Reserves, but as time passed, the Army had fewer and fewer individuals with expertise in these key areas. That was a problem – not just because World War II had proven the value of such work, but also because the U.S. was obligated to have it.
One of the major results of World War II was the 1954 Hague Convention treaty, which laid out the commitments of member nations to protect cultural heritage in times of armed conflict. Among the list of obligations the U.S. agreed to was establishing special units within the military that would be solely responsible for protecting cultural property.
During the peace of the 1990s, the nation's capacity to fulfill this commitment had dwindled without much notice, but the new conflicts in Afghanistan, and then Iraq, forcefully brought it to the forefront. The program needed to be brought back from the brink of extinction.
The challenge was, pardon the pun, monumental.
“There wasn't anyone around, there wasn't any training – there were maybe one or two people who had some backgrounds close to it, but there was no organized effort,” DeJesse says. “So, I started pursuing, on my own, an application on deployment of using the arts and culture in connecting with communities.”
To help, the Army sent him for advanced education at the Naval Postgraduate School, where he earned two graduate certificates, and the Army War College, where he earned a master's degree in strategic studies. Cultural heritage preservation was his research focus and, accordingly, his career developed around that, but he began to realize he needed a degree fully targeted toward cultural heritage.
Of course, he was still on active duty, too. He was deployed to Iraq from 2007-2008 and Afghanistan from 2010-2011. He became a decorated officer, with two Bronze Star Medals, the Purple Heart Medal, two Defense Meritorious Service Medals, two Meritorious Service Medals, two Army Commendation Medals, the Navy & Marine Corps Achievement Medal and the Combat Action Badge.
It was during his third deployment – to Afghanistan from 2014-2015 – when the pieces finally fell into place.
“I have family who went to Texas Tech,” DeJesse notes. “I was scrolling through programs all over the place, and one evening, in Afghanistan, I was like, ‘I wonder if they have a museum science program,' and to my surprise, there it was on the website. The following day, or maybe even that evening, I shot an email to the point of contact, Nicky Ladkin, and she and I were on the phone for like an hour and a half.
“I applied for the program while I was overseas. Basically, within a couple of weeks of coming home, I was on campus.”
But as soon as he finished the classwork, DeJesse was called up to active duty again. He completed his thesis while he was away and received his master's degree in heritage management and museum sciences in 2018.
DeJesse, with his background in both worlds, was perfectly positioned to be part of the Monuments Men and Women's new generation.
Actually, that's an understatement.
“I got tasked with reestablishing it,” he says. “I became the guy who went into recruiting, developing this capability back into the Army and rebuilding the Monuments Men and Women.”
A New Generation
It's a different job than the one the Monuments Men and Women of the past faced. For one thing, we are not currently at war.
“In World War II, it was about defeating armies and conquering cities, so the Monuments Men and Women were really object-focused – they had to preserve the art, the buildings and everything like that,” DeJesse explains. “In present circumstances, the importance of these objects and these sites is how they connect to people and how protecting these types of things gives pathways for reconciliation in conflict.
“It also does preserve objects, and that's one of our missions, but operationally, we're not just curators, we're soldiers and we serve mission objectives. The idea that we're going to drop a Monuments Man or Woman behind enemy lines, or near the front, and say, ‘Good luck; go save some art,' – no. They're connected to what the unit they're assigned to is doing.”
On that point, today's Monuments Officers sometimes find themselves advising their assigned unit commanders.
“If they're going to conduct targeted artillery or bombing an enemy area, we advise them if that zone is protected because of cultural heritage because we don't want to strike those areas,” DeJesse notes. “That could mean using a different kind of munition against the target. A huge, massive bomb could blow away a city block; instead, preferably in these cases, we'd do a surgical strike and take out a corner of the city block where the enemy might be. The technology nowadays allows us to do that.”
One of the division's top priorities is to work with professionals on the ground in whatever country they're in.
“We want to make them the Monuments Men and Women of their own space, because they know the most,” he emphasizes. “If we go into a country where there's a war going on, who am I to decide what should be protected? In a lot of cultural heritage, international agreements, treaties and conventions, it's the source nation community that defines what their cultural heritage is. What we might find important there, they might say, ‘Yeah, but really, to our culture, this thing is the most important thing,' so that's a big piece.
“Advisory service is a secondary role to partnering with the ones who are actually in the conflict. Because we can help apply resources wherever they need help, but they are in the lead, which is where they need to be.”
Back to Texas Tech
DeJesse says he wouldn't be where he is today without the education he received from Texas Tech. It's one of the reasons he continues to teach provenance research in the university's heritage management and museum sciences graduate program each year.
And now he's coming back for an extra special presentation.
DeJesse will return to campus this week to share his story, and the story of the Monuments Men and Women, at 6 p.m. Thursday (April 13) at the Museum of Texas Tech.
“How do you rebuild something?” he asks. “There was no supply and no demand – it's the worst of all startup scenarios, right? So, I'll be telling that story of what was developed and the partnerships and the exciting results that have been created. It's a great story.”
While today's Monuments Men and Women may serve in different ways than those of their counterparts 80 years ago, DeJesse says they have more in common than you might expect.
“One of the benefits of this job is the unique people I get to speak to who have joined the team to rebuild the Monuments Men and Women,” he says. “They are top level professionals. They have raised their hand and sworn an oath to the Constitution and to protect cultural heritage, acknowledging the possibility of putting themselves in harm's way for their country and also for the communities we work with, for preserving their heritage.
“The level of professional you might have seen in the movie or the book, we have the same level caliber of people who are now doing this job, which is more than I could have dreamed for. I put today's Monuments Men and Women up against the ones of World War II any day.”