PORTAGE PARK — Forty-five years ago, Dale Thurston carried John Fulton through the Mekong Delta in Vietnam after Fulton, an army medic, stepped on a land mine and was grievously injured.
"Dale saved my life that day in November 1968," said Fulton, 65, an army medic who lost a leg in the blast. "We've been friends ever since."
On Monday, the two Vietnam veterans celebrated Veterans Day by visiting the National Veterans Art Museum in Portage Park and touring its new exhibit "Espirit de Corps," which celebrates the resilience of the creative spirit.
"This is a pretty good way to spend Veterans Day," said Fulton, of Kankakee, while standing in front of an exhibit that features items carried by soldiers in Vietnam, including the flak jacket just like the one he wore as a member of Charlie Company in the Ninth Infantry Division in the Army.
"Any day we're together is a good day," added Thurston, 64, of Cedar Springs, Mich.
In addition to Veterans Day, Monday marked the first anniversary of the museum's relocation to the Six Corners Shopping District in Portage Park as part of an effort to turn the area into an arts and entertainment district that will attract shoppers and diners.
"The neighborhood has really turned into what we thought it would — a destination," said museum Executive Director Levi Moore.
Ald. John Arena (45th) said Monday he was pleased an organization that "honors and heals" veterans was playing a role in the renaissance of Six Corners, which was once the city's premiere shopping destination outside the Loop.
"The museum has introduced bus loads of school kids and veterans to our neighborhood," Arena said.
"When the Filament gets going it is really going to be something," Moore said.
The partnership between the veterans art museum and Filament, which will present a documentary performance of soldiers' own words by Erasing the Distance at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 12 and Nov. 13 as well as Nov. 18 through Nov. 20, is evidence that the arts district is taking root, Arena said.
But the last year hasn't been without challenges. In May, Eddie Carranza, the owner of the Portage Theater, which is across the street from the museum, abruptly closed the theater as part of a dispute with Arena. It has been dark since May.
"It hurts," Moore said of the theater's closure. "I hope it will be open again soon. When that sign is lit, the whole neighborhood has a different aura."
Moore, who also serves as the president of the Six Corners Business Association, said the museum has been embraced by the community.
Moore said he was especially proud of the museum's new exhibit, which featured art by veterans of wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. It showcases therapeutic art and how the works help soldiers understand and cope with the real impact of war.
The exhibit is designed to attract Vietnam veterans who may begin struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as they retire, as well as those veterans returning home from Afghanistan and Iraq.
"We want to reach out to them, and all veterans," Moore said. "They are not alone."