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Inside Historic Fort Snelling, Chris Belland has worked for years educating kids on school tours and visitors about the past.

Now the Army National Guard veteran is focused on the future, taking over a newly created role to expand the fort's work with veterans and military members.

"It's one of the sites in Minnesota that has a connection to the military," said Belland, who started as the program and outreach manager of veterans relations earlier this year. "This is front and center in the metro and there's 10,000 years of history. It's a unique site."

In the Minnesota Historical Society's first permanent role working specifically on veterans' issues, Belland will help expand military history information at the restored 1820s fort, which opens for the season this weekend.

He will also boost outreach to veterans at all of the nonprofit's 26 sites and museums across the state — part of the Historical Society's wider efforts to broaden the stories told at its sites.

"We used to focus on one slice in time, and now it's opened up," said Nancy Cass, the program manager at Fort Snelling, which is situated on a bluff above the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. "And that's the opportunity before us — the broader picture."

The Historical Society's oral history department recently finished a two-year project chronicling stories of Minnesotans during the Vietnam War era, including veterans.

This summer, the fort will add new stories of the 25th Infantry, a black unit posted at Fort Snelling after the Civil War. Starting this weekend, for the first time, the fort will offer free admission to all military veterans and up to five family members.

The Historical Society's 25 other sites and museums in Minnesota are also providing free admission to active-duty U.S. military members and up to five family members this summer.

That effort is part of the national Blue Star Museums program that includes more than 2,000 U.S. museums and offers free admission through Labor Day.

State park closed, fort open

Located next to the river, Fort Snelling State Park is closed until July after extensive flood damage from snowmelt and recent rains, but Historic Fort Snelling atop the bluffs isn't affected.

Belland said he hopes the free admission and his work in the new role will help get more Minnesota veterans and military members' families to visit Historical Society sites.

"I think my position is a way to reach out to a broader audience," he said.

Growing up in Eagan, Belland and his family became involved with historical re-enactments, encouraged by his father, a history buff.

Then as a teenager, he volunteered at Fort Snelling and continued work as a volunteer and site interpreter at the fort the past 15 years.

Now, at 32, he will merge his passion for history with his experience serving the past 13 years in the Minnesota Army National Guard's 34th Infantry Division, including two deployments overseas.

"It's the opportunity for more community engagement so our programs can reflect what people are looking for," Cass said.

Belland hopes to get more veterans to share their stories with the public and plans more military-related events at sites across the state — adding issues like post-traumatic stress disorder to the discussion.

"To have these stories be told, I think, are important," he said. "It's only growing what we can do out here."

The expanded veterans work is part of new programs and exhibits at the fort to tell the state's story through the eyes of a diverse mix of people — from slaves to Japanese-American soldiers who trained there to the American Indians who lived there centuries before white settlers and were held prisoner after the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, also known as the Sioux Uprising.

The fort also recently added the Dakota name for the land, Bdote, to its sign, upsetting some legislators and threatening the nonprofit's state funding.

Inside the fort, which drew nearly 65,000 people last year, Belland's office is housed in the reconstructed old soldiers' barracks while the Historical Society builds a new visitor center.

"There's prideful history and painful history here," Belland said. "I think it's important to tell both."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141