COLUMBUS, Ohio — On the banks of the shallow but shimmering Scioto River, across from the towering, scattered skyscrapers in the central business district of Ohio’s capital city, stands a modernistic circular building that looks at a glance like a cross between a contemporary Olympic facility and a hockey stadium.
Built to wow with shining panes of glass and sweeping concrete arches, the architecturally stunning building is, in fact, a tribute to the more than 20 million living military veterans in the United States. It purports to be the first museum in America dedicated solely to the veteran’s experience.
About a five-hour drive from Northwest Indiana, The National Veterans Memorial & Museum at 300 W. Broad St. is in the Franklinton neighborhood just across the river from downtown Columbus. It's near the popular COSI science museum where kids gape at decommissioned NASA spaceships and recreated dinosaur skeletons.
The museum pays homage to the generations of Americans who served their country in every branch, era, and conflict, including the seemingly unending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Huge crowds gathered on the opening weekend, packing the place to nervous-fire-marshall capacity, to the point where some veterans might have had flashbacks to 5-ton cattle trucks and other cramped situations.
A height-challenged Guggenheim nestled in America’s heartland and a reasonable drive from population centers like the Region, Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Indianapolis, Louisville and Pittsburgh, the National Veterans Museum aims to honor the sacrifices of everyone who wore the uniform. The building resembles New York City's Guggenheim art museum albeit on a smaller, shorter scale.
“I retired from the Army 25 years ago this month after serving 35 years, three months and 28 days,” retired Gen. Colin Powell said at the rain-dampened grand opening ceremony on Oct. 27, which was live-streamed by the museum.
“I immediately became a veteran. I was proud to be one. I was honored to join the ranks of 20 million Americans who proudly call themselves veterans. We are all now the same title and the same rank — veteran.”
Exhibits offer history, hands-on experience
The museum chronicles veterans, their spouses and families with an array of artifacts, photos, letters, personal effects, and MREs and other rations that are safely encased under glass, where they can no longer hurt anyone.
There are interactive exhibits where visitors can don hefty flak vests or rucksacks to simulate the intense rigors of basic training. The money behind the $82 million, six-year project, which was spearheaded by the late World War II fighter pilot, astronaut, and Ohio Sen. John Glenn and the Columbus Downtown Development Corp., made possible the exhibits that include films and jumbotron testimonials. It's the sort of broadly appealing, nonpartisan place that gives equal time to John McCain and Tammy Duckworth.
The 53,000-square-foot museum highlights every war U.S. service members ever fought in, leading in a circling spiral to a solemn and serene 2.5-acre rooftop garden that honors the fallen. It’s a slick and high-production-value experience that attempts to dramatize to veterans and civilians alike what it’s like to take the oath, fight overseas and come home.
“Forty-two million Americans have served in uniform in the history of our nation,” Powell said.
“This building will show their faces, their letters, their fears, their bravery, their anxious families waiting for them to return. You will hear their stories, you will see their photos and their videos. You will be asked where we get such patriots, and the answer is as it has always been — from everywhere, from cities and farms, from every color and origin. They represent the rainbow that is America, the strength and goodness that is America.
"In this day when we see the trials and tribulations, when we’ve seen another tragedy in Pittsburgh, we need to see this is a good place, a welcoming place where we can set aside the tragedies that are so contaminating our society.”
Visitors get the chance to record their own wartime experiences, see tattered flags that date back to the Revolutionary War period, and discover recent veteran books like Phil Klay’s “Redeployment” and Kayla Williams’ “Love My Rifle More than You.”
“Every national monument and memorial doesn’t need to be in D.C.,” longtime U.S. Rep. Steve Stivers said during the live-streamed groundbreaking ceremony in central Ohio. “It’s nice to have one here in the heartland."