THE COMBINATION is busted. The locks are broken. The vault is officially opened.

More than 250 paintings and sketches will be seen by the public for the first time when they are released from their cultural crypt and displayed at the National Constitution Center's Art of the American Soldier exhibit, which opens today.

The pieces from the U.S. Army's art program have been in curatorial storage in Washington, D.C., for several decades. For many of the artists, particularly the soldier-artists, it will be the first time they get to see their creations displayed.

"We have been looking for something just like this: a brilliant, unknown collection that recorded a hundred years of soldiers' firsthand visual depictions," said David Eisner, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center.

This exhibition features 250 sketches, landscapes and acrylic paintings culled from 15,000 works by 1,300 American soldiers. Some of the works, collected by the Army since World War I, are by civilian artists commissioned by the Army, and other pieces are by soldiers themselves.

Vietnam vet Roger Blum, whose work is part of the exhibit, was one of the Army's first soldier-artists. Vietnam "was the first time the U.S. Army did not hire professional artists and used enlisted men to submit slides of their work to a review committee," Blum said. "Then, the committee chose the artists based on their submissions. I was chosen to be on the first team for the combat-art program."

His experience as a landscape artist influenced his work. "I saw everything through my own eyes and could not avoid the issue of men in combat," he said. "I saw Vietnam as a very beautiful land, as well as a beautiful place, which I tried to portray in my paintings."

The exhibit features art from World War I through current-day military action in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Besides the paintings, which capture combat and death as well as the quiet, more peaceful moments in a soldier's life, the installation includes the live theatrical performance "Through Their Eyes," which focuses on soldiers on the front line. "I hope the visitors come away with a more personal and intimate sense of a soldier's life and a soldier's duty," Eisner said.

"I am extremely honored to have my pieces displayed in this exhibit," said Heather Englehart, an Iraq War veteran. "I just hope I can convey a message, to some extent, of what it is like there day in and day out. People can see what war is like through our eyes."

Master Sgt. Martin Cervantez, the Army's current artist-in-residence, said, "I try to create individuality by making [the art] relatable through personal experiences," he said.

"I want [other] artists to be able to say, 'That's exactly what it looked like when I was there.' "

After its run at the Constitution Center ends in January, Art of the American Soldier will continue on a national tour.

"I hope people enjoy my work artistically," said Blum. "But I also hope it brings out the realities of war and the tragedies that come along with it."

Art of the American Soldier, National Constitution Center, 525 Arch St., runs through Jan. 10. Free with museum admission of $12 adults, $11 seniors, $8 children 4-12. Veterans and military families receive $2 off admission. Active military personnel, career military retirees and children 3 and under are free. IPod audio tours, $5. Info: 215-409-6700 or www.constitutioncenter.org.