Courtesy Fayetteville CVB
Nothing will give you an appreciation for the men and women in uniform like sitting down to eat a meal in their midst.
For the vital role that they’ve played in our nation’s history and the sacrifices their members continue to make today, the branches of the U.S. military have earned a special place of honor in our society. In the hometowns of many military installations, group travelers can learn more about this history and pay their respects face to face.
Military towns across the country provide numerous opportunities for tour groups. In many, a bus can pull right onto the base, where visitors can explore on-site museums and interact with the soldiers themselves.
To infuse a little red, white and blue into your next itinerary, consider a visit to one of these military towns.
Fayetteville, North Carolina
In 2011, North Carolina’s Fort Bragg will finish the process of integrating the Army Forces Command from Atlanta, as well as the Army’s Special Reserve Command, making it the country’s largest military installation. Fayetteville, the hometown of “Pentagon South,” takes a lot of pride in its patriotic past and present.
“This community was shaped because of the military,” said John Meroski, CEO of the Fayetteville Convention and Visitors Bureau. “One of our neat products for groups is the Military History Trail. There are more than 40 sites where people can see our connection to the military, from the antiquities to what is today’s modern Army and Air Force.”
At Fort Bragg, groups can take a tour that includes visits to two museums as well as a look at the Sicily Drop Zone, where paratroopers practice their skydiving and parachute packing. Other sites on the trail are the Airborne and Special Operations Museum downtown and the North Carolina Veterans Park, which will open July 4.
Pulaski County, Missouri
Located adjacent to the town of St. Robert, Fort Leonard Wood occupies a large portion of Pulaski County in central Missouri. The fort is the third-largest Army training installation in the country and is a popular group tour stop.
“We have a step-on tour where an active duty soldier will step on the bus and give a windshield tour of the fort, giving information about the sites,” said Beth Wiles, executive director of the Pulaski County Tourism Bureau. “They’ll also take you to the heavy-equipment training sites, and you can choose to have lunch with the soldiers at one of their mess halls.”
Tour groups also visit the fort’s museum complex, which houses separate museums dedicated to the Army Corps of Engineers, the chemical corps and the military police. A World War II barracks area features 12 buildings that have been preserved for visitors; they include a mess hall, a church and a bunk building that held German prisoners of war.
Established in the 1850s, Kansas’ Fort Leavenworth is the oldest continuously operating fort west of the Mississippi River. Today, visitors to the adjacent town of Leavenworth can tour the fort and see some of its key sites.
Step-on guides at the fort take groups to see the buildings at the fort, such as the Command and General Staff College, where every captain in the Army completes a nine-month course, and some of the restored 19th-century officers’ homes overlooking the Missouri River. There’s more history at the Frontier Army Museum and the Buffalo Soldiers Monument, a project that was spearheaded by Colin Powell.
“We’re able to offer tour groups a meeting with actual former buffalo soldiers,” said Connie Hachenberg, executive director of the Leavenworth Convention and Visitors Bureau. “They can meet the tour group at the monument site. This is something that will not be available for too many more years, because they’re all elderly gentlemen, so it’s a very special experience.”
Every branch of the military has a presence within 30 miles of Norfolk, Virginia, including the Naval Station Norfolk, the world’s largest naval base.
“Groups can take a 45-minute guided tour of the base,” said Melissa Hopper, associate director of tour and travel for Visit Norfolk. “An actual sailor will come aboard the motorcoach and tell the groups about their job in the Navy and show them how the base is actually a city in itself. They take them past the aircraft carriers and Admirals Row.”
With prior arrangements, groups can get off the bus to visit the USS Cole memorial or have a meal in the officers’ quarters. For a different perspective on the base, they can also take a naval base cruise, which gives them a narrated look at some of the many Navy ships in the harbor.
Beyond the naval base, Norfolk’s military attractions also include the Hampton Roads Naval Museum and the Battleship Wisconsin, as well as the McArthur Memorial and the annual Virginia International Tattoo.
Although Dayton is a thriving Midwestern city in its own right, the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base just outside of town is an important part of area life. The big draw for tourists at the base is the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, the world’s largest military aviation museum.
“When they dedicated this museum, the historian for the Air Force said that this museum blows away the Smithsonian Air and Space museum,” said Bev Rose, director of marketing and communications for the Dayton Convention and Visitors Bureau. “There are more than 400 air and space vehicles.”
The museum includes exhibits on military aviation throughout the different periods of the 20th century. Groups can also take a shuttle bus from the main museum to a hangar housing presidential aircraft, including the plane that carried John F. Kennedy’s body back from Dallas.
Visitors will find additional military heritage on display at Dayton’s Korean War Memorial and the Dayton VA Medical Center, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
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