TRIANGLE, Va. - Washington is a city of memorials to war heroes, but beyond the Beltway near Quantico Marine Base in Virginia is another tribute to brave Americans - the National Museum of the Marine Corps. The stunning building, interactive exhibits and cost (it's free!) rival anything that Washington has to offer.
The museum commands attention even from nearby I-95. Its 210-foot spire replicates the 60-degree angle at which the U.S. flag was planted on Iwo Jima in World War II.
A good museum teaches patrons a bit about the past. A great museum immerses visitors in history so they truly understand its gravity. This is a great museum.
A good place to start, especially if you have kids, is the "Making Marines" exhibit. There is plenty to touch and interact with, including a booth in which a drill sergeant yells in your ear, a bar with instructions on how to do a proper pull-up, and a heavy backpack to try on.
That is just prep. The rest of the tour proves that basic training is the easiest part of being a Marine.
The World War II exhibit helps visitors understand what landing on Iwo Jima was like. Visitors step into a small, dim room that resembles the hull of a ship. A commander explains the importance of the mission, and then a door opens onto a reproduction of a Higgins boat, ready to land on the Japanese island.
Original footage from Iwo Jima plays on a panoramic screen around the boat. Marines' voices can be heard reciting prayers, and then come the sounds of pings - bullets deflected off the metal of the ship.
Creating a sense of history is what the museum does best. Visitors to the Korean War displays look in on Marines on the American side of the 38th parallel as they camp in the cold. The room is chilly.
"In actuality, it was like 40 below zero," docent Jack Stewart explains.
In the Vietnam War section, you feel the sweltering heat and see enormous (stuffed) rats. A Marine is heard talking about his time in a claustrophobic Vietnamese solitary-confinement box, too small to stand in and too narrow to sit, just like the one on display.
Beyond the experiences that put butterflies in your stomach, the museum has a remarkable collection of artifacts, including the flags that were flown at Iwo Jima.
"This is the Marine Corps icon right here," Stewart says as he proudly gestures to one of the flags and the famous photo next to it.