Our country was founded through war, and millions of men and women have joined the U.S. armed forces since, some dying here or overseas to preserve the nation and its freedoms. People cross oceans to remember the fallen on the beaches of Normandy and The Ardennes, but there are plenty of places to pay tribute right here in America. Here are 15 awe-inspiring military sites to visit (all are free, except where noted).
The USS Arizona is a stirring monument for 1,102 of the 1,177 Marines and sailors who died in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, launching the United States into World War II. It is also an active military cemetery, and many of the 334 survivors of the attack have had their ashes scattered over the Arizona. They are the only people whose remains are allowed to be interred there. The memorial, which straddles the hull of the sunken battleship, can be reached only by boat, for which 1,300 walk-up tickets are given away daily.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, known as the Wall, has been one of the most frequently visited military sites in the country since its installation in 1982. Joining it 11 years later was the Vietnam Women's Memorial, acknowledging the 265,000 women who volunteered to serve in the armed forces during the war. About 10,000 served in Vietnam, most as nurses. (Several have their names inscribed on the Wall, as they died alongside the men they cared for.) Most deployed immediately after graduation, making them the youngest crop of military medical personnel in American history, according to the Vietnam Women's Memorial Foundation.
The USS New Jersey launched one year after the attack at Pearl Harbor and served for nearly a half-century before being decommissioned in 1991. The most decorated battleship and surviving warship in history, the New Jersey was honored for service in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Beirut, and the Persian Gulf. Today, visitors can retrace the steps of generations of officers and crew members, climbing the same ladders and navigating the same tight passageways during an interactive tour of the 45,000-ton maritime survivor. Tickets start at $17 for children (5 to 12), seniors and veterans and $22 for adults. Active military, World War II veterans, and former crew members board for free.
During the Civil War, the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia clashed at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862. About 23,000 soldiers were killed, wounded, or declared missing, making it the bloodiest day in American history. A visitor center and trails (none longer than 1.8 miles) can help visitors understand the history and geography of the ground that absorbed more American blood than any other in the history of the country. Three-day admission is $5 for each person 16 or older, or $10 by the carload.
With 17 spires of aluminum, glass, and steel soaring 150 feet to form a steep, triangular loft, the Air Force's Cadet Chapel is actually home to four separate chapels -- for Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Buddhist ceremonies (with room for Muslims and others in an all-faiths room). Each is so enormous that different services can take place at the same time without interrupting each other. The structure, just north of Colorado Springs, cost $3.5 million to build.
"The shot heard around the world" was fired at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, signaling the start of the American Revolution. Concord's Minute Man National Historical Park is more than just a collection of re-enactments and period dress. The Minute Man statue, North Bridge, and the Grave of the British Soldiers (which contains the bodies of two killed in the battle) make the site a favorite of historians, military buffs, and tourists.
To many people, New Orleans is known for partying and good times -- but not to a British soldier in 1815. The final battle of the (inaptly named) War of 1812 took place just downstream, at Chalmette, and was one of the most lopsided victories in American military history. British and American forces engaged in brutal fighting, not knowing a peace treaty had already been signed hundreds of miles away. The result: fewer than 20 American losses, compared with more than 2,000 for the British in the Battle of New Orleans. A 100-foot-tall obelisk stands as a monument to the troops, and visitors can climb to the top to survey the battlefield.
In 1914, the assassination of an obscure Austrian royal set the spark that ignited the first global war in human history, and one of the deadliest. The National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City dates to the days immediately after the war's end, when patriotic city leaders raised the equivalent of $34 million in today's dollars in just 10 days. Two years later, in 1921, Allied commanders dedicated the memorial in front of 100,000 people -- the first meeting of all five leaders.
This 624-acre site is the final resting place of nearly half a million service members and veterans dating back to the Civil War. Arlington National Cemetery continues to host between 30 and 40 funerals a week, and its Arlington Memorial Amphitheater is a hallowed setting for Veterans Day, Memorial Day, and Easter services. Within the amphitheater near Washington, D.C., lies the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Although the Korean War lasted just three years, it ranks among the most brutal in U.S. history: 36,574 Americans killed, 103,284 wounded, and 8,200 listed as missing in action or lost at sea. The 5.8 million Americans who served during the "Forgotten War" are memorialized on the National Mall with 7-foot stainless steel statues depicting soldiers of all races and specialties slogging through rice paddies, ponchos blowing in the wind, weapons in hand.
The campus of the U.S. Naval Academy -- 338 acres of pristine landscaping and architecture known to residents simply as the "Yard" -- is a registered historical landmark, the second-oldest of America's five great service academies, where future officers have arrived since before the Civil War to undergo the unforgiving process that weeds out the weak among the "plebes."
The 330,000-square-foot American Armoured Foundation Tank and Ordnance War Memorial Museum facility in Danville contains artifacts dating to 1509, allowing visitors to experience the transition from horses to iron as tanks and other armored vehicles became enduring symbols of mechanized warfare. A visit costs $12 for adults, $10 for kids 12 or younger.
Set in a remote and stunning wilderness, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is home to Custer National Cemetery, the resting place of frontier-era Americans including Native Americans, soldiers, children, scouts, and travelers who perished at isolated frontier outposts. But it's most famous as the site of Gen. George Custer's last stand in June 1876. After a bid to force nomadic tribes onto reservations and take Black Hills land for gold mining, the general and his troops were decimated by forces led by legendary American Indian leaders Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. Access is $20 per car or $10 per person, with kids 15 or younger free.
St. Augustine is the oldest continuously occupied European-established settlement in the United States, starting with its beginnings in 1565 as a Spanish capital. Long before Florida became American territory in 1819, the city was defended by one of the oldest and most impressive forts in the world -- a massive structure made of stone and mortar, Castillo de San Marcos. It was built in 1672, more than 100 years before the American Revolution. Entrance is $10 for adults and free for kids 15 and younger.
The first shot of the Civil War was fired April 12, 1861, when Confederate troops launched artillery at a Union garrison stationed at a partially completed installation called Fort Sumter. The fort, reduced to rubble during the war, was rebuilt and declared a national monument in 1966. Visiting the island fort by boat costs $21, or $13 for children. Nearby Fort Moultrie is $3 to visit, or free for children.