FORT BENNING, Ga. - I'm all about paying tribute to freedom, particularly those individuals willing to give their lives defending it. No one does it better than the National Infantry Museum.
A visit to the 190,000-square-foot facility makes for a somber, yet powerful journey back in time - punctuated by chilling sound effects, interactive features, artifacts and videos documenting the triumphs and hardships of American Soldiers in battle over the past three centuries. From LTC Alexander Hamilton's bayonet-wielding Infantrymen in Yorktown, Va., to today's operations in the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan, their experiences are chronicled in remarkable detail.
I recently made my first trip through The Last 100 Yards, a winding, slightly upward passageway decked out with scenes from many of the Infantry's major battles - an odyssey that begins in the Revolutionary War and closes in the war on terrorism.
Other exhibits recount the bloody stalemate from the Battle of Antietam, a street offensive in France during World War I and parachute landings in World War II. I really like the glider suspended from way above. It was a troop transporter in the Pacific and European theaters and one of only four remaining in the United States.
The background music is poignant and haunting as visitors exit the ramp past a closing video montage with Soldiers heading off on foot. It was filmed at Fort Benning.
"It shows the Soldiers are marching on and will be there to protect us no matter where the road takes us," said Cyndy Cerbin, the National Infantry Museum's communications director.
The Fort Benning Gallery on the museum's next stop highlights all aspects of Soldier development - from basic training and Airborne jumps to Ranger and Sniper schools. A video of SSG Michael Johnston, the Army's Drill Sergeant of the Year for 2009, ushers you into the exhibit space.
One fascinating display details how Columbus and Fort Benning marked the best spot in America for young debutantes looking to get hitched to "handsome, young Soldiers."
Cerbin said the "hottest attraction out here" is the M-4 rifle firing range simulator, also found in the Fort Benning gallery. For a $5 ticket, visitors can take 30 shots at 20 pop-up targets. The video-screen simulator is the same one used by basic trainees.
"Soldiers love to come in here and show off for their parents or girlfriends," Cerbin said.
The six era galleries on the museum's lower level provide insight into the Infantry's role throughout history, from its emergence on the International Stage to America as the world's Sole Superpower. Each contains interactive components, including World War I trenches and a re-created jungle scene from Vietnam, complete with heat and humidity. The museum plans to open two additional galleries, honoring Soldiers from the Revolutionary and Civil wars, at a future date.
The Infantry Theater on the same level presents a moving 12-minute tribute to Soldiers, with footage from numerous campaigns. I think the film should be shown to children in classrooms across America as a gripping reminder that freedom comes with a price.
World War II Company Street, the 3-D IMAX Theatre, Fife and Drum Restaurant, and Soldier Store offer more visitor experiences.
There's not enough time to soak it all up in one visit. Since last June's grand opening, the $100 million National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center at Patriot Park has attracted more than 250,000 visitors, averaging roughly 1,200 a day. Count me among those who shall return.