When guests first hear the rumble of an Air Force bomber flying overhead in Fayetteville, North Carolina, many think the sound is a thunderstorm.
Military trainings occur frequently in Fayetteville because of its proximity to the largest Army installation in the country: Fort Bragg. The town’s close interactions with the nearby base and its own wartime history have created a destination bursting with patriotism and military attractions. Group leaders creating a military-focused tour of the surrounding Cumberland County can choose from more than 40 military sites from various periods.
“Spending time here reminds people that freedom isn’t free,” said John Meroski, president and CEO of the Fayetteville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “There are always military practices going on. There are people here ready to lay down their lives for the country. We are an open door. We want people to come and see this incredible community. We want people to have an opportunity to say thank you.”
From an arsenal built before the Civil War to an active military base, groups can examine the sacrifices made by past and current Army personnel at these Fayetteville military experiences.
Museum of the Cape Fear Historical Complex
Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s first objective when he invaded North Carolina was the Fayetteville Arsenal. The 1840s arsenal produced massive amounts of weaponry for Confederate forces until Sherman successfully burned it during the Civil War. Groups can view the remnants of the arsenal at the Museum of the Cape Fear Historical Complex.
Arsenal Park holds the remains of the important Civil War site as part of the seven-acre historic complex. A steel semblance of one of the arsenal’s four octagonal towers illustrates its size, and exhibits on the arsenal can be found inside the Museum of the Cape Fear.
The museum follows the history of southern North Carolina from Native Americans and European immigrants through the early 20th century. In April 2018, the museum broke ground on a $65 million museum complex dedicated to the Civil War era, with plans to open within the next few years.
“Groups can schedule a three- or four-hour tour here,” said Meroski. “They do a phenomenal job of making it entertaining. There is always an event going on within the complex.”
Tours, special events and living-history demonstrations allow groups to interact with the area’s past.
Airborne and Special Operations Museum
Groups can ski with a Special Forces Team through the snowy woods or fly into Normandy on the morning of D-Day during one of the Airborne and Special Operation Museum’s simulator experiences. The larger-than-life films “Army on the Move” and “Experience the Legend” combine video with simulated effects like pitching, rolling and other motions timed to match the film.
The museum honors the bravery of U.S. Army Airborne and Special Operations forces with hundreds of artifacts, life-size dioramas and visual displays. The museum, which is in downtown Fayetteville, offers guided group and school tours.
“If you are going to the Airborne and Special Operations Museum, the docents are veterans who can speak to you first-person about what their experiences were like,” said Meroski. “You aren’t just getting a museum tour, you are listening to a personal story about what happened.”
The lobby of the 59,000-square-foot museum impresses many visitors. The five-story-high room uses natural light and two fully deployed parachutes, one from WWII and one modern square chute, to introduce guests to the museum.
The museum starts with the conception of the U.S. Army Parachute Test Platoon in 1940 and continues until the present day. Exhibit highlights include a replica of a French village from the WWII Normandy Invasion, a rare WWII glider, a Huey helicopter and a diorama of the Special Forces’ hidden site during the Persian Gulf War.
North Carolina Veterans Park
Hand casts from veterans, their families and residents of every North Carolina county adorn the moving Community Columns at North Carolina Veterans Park. The casts represent the many hands that support veterans before and after their service. The park offers many exhibits to pay homage to the veterans, both living and deceased, from all of the military branches and from over 100 North Carolina counties.
“You can meander through the park and see some great sculptures and exhibits,” said Meroski. “Sometimes there are performances going on. It is the first park dedicated to all veterans of military service.”
Next to the Airborne and Special Operations Museum, the five-acre park offers an indoor component at the Visitors Center. Among the exhibits at the 3,500-square-foot center is an unusual chandelier constructed from 33,500 “dog tags” from veterans across the state.
Outside, the Story Garden allows visitors to listen to personal accounts of veterans’ military experiences and their lives today. Seven other water features, walking paths and public art invite guests to reflect on the meaning of sacrifice.
Watching one jumper summon the bravery to dive out of an airplane is impressive in itself. Seeing a hundred parachuting troopers falling from the sky simultaneously is amazing.
Groups can see these skydiving exercises at a Golden Knights parachute team practice or show in nearby Fort Bragg. Groups can work with the Fayetteville Area CVB to time their visits to coincide with a performance by the Golden Knights or another fascinating military event.
“No two tours of Fort Bragg are the same,” said Meroski. “There are always a lot of events going on. Just to be among our heroes, both past and present, is incredible.”
With over 55,000 military personnel, Fort Bragg houses museums and other attractions that civilians can visit with advance notice. Guided tours take groups through the military installation and the airfield for half-day or full-day tours with lunch on-site.
“Dining in one of the fort’s facilities can seat you at the same table as a soldier that might be going off to war tomorrow,” said Meroski. “You can wish them well. It’s an authentic experience.”
Attractions on the post include the 82nd Airborne Division War Memorial Museum, the JFK Special Warfare Museum, Civil War cemeteries and the Sicily Drop Zone to watch paratroopers in training.
Groups that plan to visit Fort Bragg should allow at least 120 days for approval. All participants must show proof of U.S. citizenship.