Fayetteville is located just outside of Fort Bragg and home to plenty of war related museums and memorials perfect for those in town to visit friends and family on post.
When my former husband first enlisted in the Army he was offered a path toward Special Forces. I accepted this with stoic pride and did the only thing I could do to try to understand what he’d be going through: I read about it.
I was working at a bookstore and ordered Uneasy Warriors: Coming Back Home: The Perilous Journey of the Green Berets. That book was only the beginning of what would be years of reading about wars from World War I to the present day. All I remember from Uneasy Warriors was that Fayetteville, North Carolina was home to many retired Green Berets and that after reading the book I wanted to travel there.
When I left Charleston this morning I knew I wanted to be in Virginia before night. I’d planned several days of hiking this last part of the trip, but the rain that started pouring down yesterday followed me north along the eastern coast and is expected to last throughout the weekend. Driving up 95 North I passed several signs for Fayetteville and decided I’d turn off the highway and explore the city.
I drove through the downtown area which looked like it had a variety of restaurants and stores in well kept brick buildings. I pulled into a parking space to search for attractions in my GPS and several museums came up. I decided that I would go to see the JFK Special Warfare Museum devoted to showcasing the triumphs of the US Special Forces and located on Fort Bragg.
It turns out you need to lead a special operation to find the museum or at least know someone who is stationed on Fort Bragg who can show you the way.
My GPS led me several miles down the road to a church. There was no museum in sight and no signs to follow. I tried my cell phone but the maps app kept shutting down and not responding. I tried typing the address into my GPS instead.
I spent the next 30 minutes driving in giant circles around Fayetteville as my GPS calculated, recalculated, and claimed I was taking the wrong turns when I know I was following the bright pink route just as it was outlined on the screen. On the plus side, I did get to drive off the main roads and through neighborhoods where I saw veterans sitting on their porches watching the rain. This is the Fayetteville I’d read about in Uneasy Warriors.
I finally found my way to a gate of Fort Bragg, but didn’t see a visitor’s center to get my temporary car pass. I waited in line with the soldiers at the gate swiping their military IDs for entrance. When I got up to the front of the line I decided to swipe my Massachusetts driver’s license knowing well it wouldn’t work, but hoping for some sort of miracle. When nothing happened a soldier approached me to say I was going to have to go to the main gate to get a visitor’s pass (no amount of eyelash batting was going to gain me access through the restricted gate and even the DOD sticker from my days on Fort Benning expired two years ago.) To get to the main gate he said, “Drive down this road until you get to a big ol’ intersection. Take that right on the All American Highway and you’ll get to the main gate.”
I passed three big ol’ intersections, none for the All American Highway and decided to cut my losses and return to the Airborne and Special Operations Museum that I’d passed near the center of town.
The Airborne and Special Operations Museum is a donation only exhibit that chronicles the accomplishments of American paratroopers and Special Forces units through the major wars. More than just cases with weapons, uniforms, and other artifacts, the museum is set up like a simulation of a war zone. You’ll walk through walls with soldiers crouching in corners ready to attack, see replicas of airplanes and HMMWVS, and hear the sound of gunfire and yelling in the distance. It’s an effective characterization of not only what the paratroopers and SF have done over the past century, but also how warfare has evolved and changed to accommodate and attack the increasingly unidentifiable opposition force.
I was lucky enough also to see a temporary exhibit entirely on the war in Somalia. Blackhawk Down was another one of the books I read while my former spouse was deployed and we watched the movie together countless times. It is one of my favorite war movies and Mark Bowden is easily the reporter I respect the most. His collection of articles Road Work is a good place to begin reading if his longer chronicles of war are too much to digest.
The exhibit for the Battle of Mogadishu was set up like the remainder of the museum to simulate the actual environment on the ground in Somalia. Exhibits are displayed along sand colored walls and feature the bullet covered door from one of the HMMWVS, the propeller from the downed helicopter, and uniforms donated by soldiers and their families. It’s one thing to see simulations of soldiers at war in movies, it’s another to see in person the fully loaded body armor and flak vests that the men wore through the desert.
If walking through the exhibits surrounded by veterans and their families is not enough reality for you, you can ride the motion simulator for a fee and see what it’s really like to be a paratrooper.
Whether you’re just passing through North Carolina or visiting someone in town, The Airborne and Special Operations Museum is well worth the stop.