When you enter the hallowed halls of the National Veterans Memorial and Museum (NVMM) in Columbus, Ohio, you might be struck by what's missing as by what's displayed. Occupying pride of place in the grand atrium isn't some ode to militarism — say, a fighter plane or a tank — but a series of massive black-and-white portraits by photojournalist Stacy Pearsall.
A former Air Force combat photographer and Bronze Star Medal recipient, Pearsall retired from military service after a roadside bomb blast in Iraq and now spends her time photographing thousands of veterans in all 50 states. The resulting images, which hang from the rafters, are two-sided: One shows a recent portrait from civilian life and the other an archival shot from active-duty days.
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These men and women of all ages and races — some posed with service dogs, others using wheelchairs — perfectly encapsulate the memorial's mission: to tell the individual stories of those who served. But what makes this place so quietly radical is how it expands that narrative to tell the whole picture of a service member's experience — not just the heroism of combat but also the bravery of deciding to enlist, the difficulty of transitioning back into civilian life, the harsh realities of trauma and the sacrifices made by family members and friends back home.
Plan your trip
Location: 300 W. Broad St., just across the Discovery Bridge from downtown.
Getting there: The museum is accessible by foot from much of downtown, including across the flat and pedestrian-friendly Discovery Bridge. If you arrive by car, paid parking is available in an on-site lot. City buses (lines 10 and 12) make stops here, too.
Visit: Wednesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Closed New Year's Day, Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas)
Admission: $17 for adults ($15 for seniors 65+); free for veterans, active-duty military and Gold Star families.
Tours: Daily guided tours at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.
Best season to visit: Memorial Day in spring and Veterans Day in autumn are especially inspiring times, with events that typically include a benefit run/walk and a poignant rooftop ceremony.
Best time to visit: In late fall or winter, Cloyd suggests visiting around sunset. “The sun coming through the campaign-ribbon glass on the mezzanine level reflects across the handrail and down to the first floor wall, creating a rainbow of stripes."
Accessibility: The entrance is a short walk from the parking lot. Those using wheelchairs or walkers can enter through the Group Entry doorway directly across from the lot, accessed via a flat path. Exhibits are accessible by elevator or ramp. Video exhibits are closed-captioned, and visitors guides are available in large print and braille. Wheelchairs are available at no charge (first come, first served). Service dogs and miniature horses are welcome.
Opened in 2018 on a scenic bend in the Scioto River, the new NVMM can trace its roots to Ohio billionaire and philanthropist Les Wexner, the founder of L Brands (which started with the Limited and now includes Bath & Body Works and Victoria's Secret). The Franklin County Veterans Memorial had stood on this spot since 1955, and Wexner was on record calling the old building “hideous.” He suggested that rather than spend tax dollars to refurbish the aging institution, the city of Columbus should tear it down and build a new showstopping museum, funded heavily by private donations. He and his wife, Abigail, eventually kicked in $40.6 million of the more than $82 million raised.
Wexner reached out to former Ohio senator and Marine Corps veteran John Glenn to help usher the memorial into a reality, and soon Gov. John Kasich pitched the idea of expanding it from a county memorial to a statewide one. The project kept snowballing, gaining more and more support, until it made its way to the U.S. Congress, where lawmakers officially designated it a “national” museum in 2018. Gen. Colin Powell gave the keynote speech at its dedication later that year, on Oct. 27.
The building's design strikes a delicate balance between the timeless and the contemporary, the organic and the rock solid. The architectural team transformed 28 million pounds of concrete into a swooping, curving monument that calls to mind crisscrossing ribbons frozen in place. The spiral design — with an exterior ramp looping up to a grassy rooftop sanctuary — gives the appearance of New York's Guggenheim Museum, flipped inside out. Keeping all that concrete from feeling oppressively heavy are abundant windows that allow the sun in. And on the mezzanine level, they take the form of vertical strips of stained glass, inspired by military campaign ribbons, which bathe the minimalist interiors in warm colorful light.
What you'll see
Inside, exhibits present a chronological timeline of U.S. military history, starting with the American Revolution and continuing through to today. Fourteen thematic alcoves along the way give you glimpses into the experience of serving, from deployment and combat to reentry into civilian life. Throughout, the exhibits are peppered with letters, quotes, video messages and personal artifacts, such as a World War I YMCA songbook, a World War II service banner that hung in a military family's window and a Vietnam War vet's motorcycle vest covered in POW/MIA patches. This isn't a museum dedicated to objects or memorabilia, however; these items merely illustrate the personal stories being told rather than the other way around.
"Every story has meaning and importance,” says Andy Cloyd, the museum's director, when asked if any resonate particularly strongly with him. “If I had to choose, I would probably lean toward the story of former Army Maj. Joshua Mantz."
Mantz was wounded by sniper fire in Baghdad, when a bullet severed his femoral artery. “He bled out and was dead for 15 minutes,” Cloyd continues. “I get a catch in my throat every time I walk through the museum and hear Josh telling his story [in a video] of how he lived because the medics and his team didn't give up on him."
If you're a veteran, record your own video at a Share Your Story booth. “We've had countless veterans come through with their families and open up to share their service experiences for the first time,” Cloyd says.
The director recommends not missing the Remembrance Gallery on the mezzanine level. There, a flag that once flew over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia now sits, folded in a display case between two mirrors and giving the illusion of stars and stripes stretching out forever. This “infinity flag” pays tribute to those we've lost and serves as a potent reminder of why this museum has earned its nickname: the New Home of the Brave.
Director's tip: The NVMM sits adjacent to the peaceful Memorial Grove, a 2.5-acre park filled with American elm trees and a 325-foot stone wall with three cascades of water and a reflecting pool. “It's a great place for contemplation and reflection,” Cloyd says. “I like to take a few minutes to walk or sit on one of the benches that has been dedicated there to refocus and remember the importance of the stories we're sharing here.”
Continue your military-focused itinerary in Ohio's state capital after your visit to the NVMM.
North of downtown, near the Ohio State University campus, take in a large collection of Civil War battle flags and a World War I exhibit at the Ohio History Center.
About 20 minutes south of downtown, at the Motts Military Museum in Groveport, view personal artifacts from every conflict in U.S. history, such as a powder horn from the American Revolution and Gen. Douglas MacArthur's corncob pipe.
Even hockey comes with a military spin here. During the Civil War, Ohio sent the most troops per capita to the Union Army, and the National Hockey League honored that legacy by naming the local team the Columbus Blue Jackets. When the team takes the ice, scores a goal or wins a game, the stadium “fires” a replica 1857 Napoleon cannon. The Blue Jackets also honor active-duty service members and veterans every game.
Where to stay
Splurge: Just across the river from the memorial, in downtown, the 149-room Hotel LeVeque, Autograph Collection, occupies a 1924 art deco landmark that once ranked as the tallest building between New York and Chicago and served as an aerial lighthouse for Amelia Earhart. Rooms from $189.
Save: In the Short North Arts District just north of downtown, the 171-room Graduate Columbus pays a nod to nearby Ohio State University with its scarlet-and-gray color scheme. An illustration of one of Ohio's most famous Marine Corps veterans and one of the NVMM's biggest champions, John Glenn, appears on a custom-made chair in each room. Rooms from $99.
Where to dine
Splurge: The upscale comfort food at the Guild House in trendy Short North borrows from international flavors, with dishes such as cavatelli with duck confit and Mongolian lamb chops.
Save: Grab lunch at Schmidt's Sausage Haus und Restaurant, in German Village, south of downtown. Fill up on the family-run restaurant's old-school buffet of bratwurst, knockwurst, potato salad, spaetzle and more.
Drive one hour west to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, outside of Dayton. Established in 1923, the world's oldest and largest military aviation museum impresses with its collection of famous aircraft, including the Apollo 15 command module Endeavour; Bockscar, the B-29 bomber that dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki; and the Air Force One jet on which Lyndon B. Johnson took the presidential oath of office after Kennedy's assassination.
On your way to Dayton, make a side trip to the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Wilberforce. The rural brick house was owned by Charles Young, who escaped enslavement and later became a Buffalo Soldier in the U.S. Army and the highest-ranking Black officer when he died in 1922. Park grounds are open to the public, and appointment-only tours are available upon request through the website.
While in Wilberforce, stop by the nearby National Afro-American Museum & Cultural Center to see the exhibit titled “African Americans Fighting for a Double Victory,” featuring the artwork of African American muralist Charles Alston, who made World War II propaganda targeted to a Black audience.
Nicholas DeRenzo is a contributing writer who covers entertainment and travel. Previously he was executive editor of United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, Sunset and New York magazine.