The Army Town

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Airborne & Special Operations Museum, Fayetteville
Photo by Christopher Sims

Next to the handsome old railway station, where topless bars used to stand, is Fayetteville's most ambitious new tourist attraction: the $24 million Airborne and Special Operations Museum. Fort Bragg is home to the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, Special Operations, and Special Forces units.

The museum's huge lobby is enclosed in glass with a soaring, five-story ceiling. You can't help but look up at the two uniformed mannequins suspended overhead.

"The first visual element that strikes you is a World War II paratrooper, fully deployed, he's coming down under an actual World War II parachute," says John Duvall, the museum's director.

"And right behind him," says Duvall, "is a modern U.S. Army Special Operations soldier coming down under a different kind of parachute, a modern ram air parachute."

That's just a warm-up. Inside, the museum's sprawling gallery exhibits trace the history of the Army Airborne.

"Airborne Command was established at Fort Bragg in March, 1942," says a deep voice from a film loop.

There's a tank on display, and several Army helicopters and airplanes. The body of a C-47 aircraft lets you imagine yourself a paratrooper.

"We actually have a piece of fuselage," says Duvall, "and the visitor can pass through this. They hear overhead the jump commands of the jump master."

"Equipment check!" shouts an overhead speaker. "Get ready! Move! Go! Go! Go!"

Local people built the museum with government grants and private donations, and now run it jointly with the Army. It's hard to imagine a louder statement: this is an Army town.

In early 2005, a coalition of city and county leaders announced a new step in their campaign to fix Fayetteville's image.

The Fayetteville Online Newsminute, a Web feature by the Fayetteville Observer, reported it this way: "Think Americana, think Fayetteville. ... Fayetteville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau President John Meroski wants to see a marketing campaign to portray Fayetteville as America's most patriotic city. There have been several suggestions, such as daily parades, tax breaks for flag wavers, and requiring all restaurants to serve apple pie."

The city hopes to capitalize on its big military presence, and its history. Local people played roles on both sides of the revolutionary war, and the town was named after the French hero Lafayette. At the end of the Civil War, Sherman's Army came through town and burned an arsenal.

"We had hired a consultant and the consultant came back and said, you know, you've got one big obvious thing that's a commonality to all your communities and constituents, and that is this patriotism," says Meroski of the Convention and Visitors Bureau. "And they said, you know, that can really become your community's deliverable when you come here."

Almost everybody agrees it will be tough to change Fayetteville's image. Chuck Fager is a kind of resident pacifist in this military town. He's director of Quaker House. The group runs a hotline to help service members who want to get out of the military.

"It's the truth, although some people I know around here don't like to hear it. It's the truth that people still line up to stay out of Fayetteville," says Fager.

He argues an Army town can never be an attractive destination for most people who have no direct contact with the military and like it that way.

"I think of Fayetteville as a border town between civilian America and military America," says Fager. "Americans by and large like to keep our relationships to our military and the veterans and stuff on a very highly ritualized and ceremonial basis. We want the victories, we want the parades; we don't want the nitty-gritty. This is a place that's a locus for the stuff that we don't want to know about."

A survey by the Fayetteville Observer found that one in four local residents know someone personally who's been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. Almost 40 percent know a service member who's been wounded.

Continue to part 4

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