One beautiful fall day in France, we stood overlooking a long, gray beach. The tide rolled peacefully in and out. The beach was empty.
Except, this beach can never really be empty. On June 6, 1944, 2,000 Americans died on what was once called Omaha Beach, as the Allied launched the final push of D-Day. Facing withering fire from the cliffs above, the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions battled rough seas to shore, sometimes up to their necks in water. Many never made it there, and many more died on that very beach.
As we stood there one member of our bicycling tour group moved forward to look more carefully at the place. A tall, upright man who had served as a lieutenant in Vietnam, reached up to brush tears away.
A few minutes later, we gazed up at Pointe du Hoc, where 200 men of the 2nd Ranger Battalion had been assigned to scale the 100-foot cliff to destroy the gun battery at the top. They succeeded, but at the cost of 135 dead and wounded.
The heroic actions of the men on Omaha and at Pointe du Hoc helped to turn the tide of World War II, but as we gazed over the 9,387 white marble markers at the American Military Cemetery, row upon row of crosses and Stars of David, we all wept. It was overwhelming, even to someone who had never served in the military.
Why we remember on Veteran’s Day
On Friday, November 11, Americans will again celebrate Veteran’s Day. It is also Remembrance Day in Canada and Australia and Armistice de 1918 in France. For some, it’s just a day off from work; maybe a chance to do a little early Christmas shopping. But for anyone who has ever had a veteran in their lives— grandparent, parent, spouse, sibling, friend—it truly is a time to remember and reflect on the many sacrifices that have been made over the course of our country’s turbulent history.
New York’s lovely Hudson Valley is dotted with sites and memorials of struggle for freedom from the Revolutionary War. Visit the Saratoga National Historical Park, commemorating the two Battles for Saratoga that marked the beginning of the American victory—but also memorializing the 500 American soldiers who fell there, who may not yet have thought of themselves as “American,” but who helped create the country we have today.
If you visit the Tennessee/Georgia border, you can walk in the paths of Civil War soldiers, Union and Confederate. The huge, 5,200-acre Chickamauga & Chattanooga Military Park commemorates the battle of September 18-20, 1863 in which 35,000 men died. Today, a rolling highway flows through the site and close by are ordinary towns with gas stations and supermarkets. But, walk the banks of the South Chickamauga Creek in Chattanooga and you can hear, if you choose to, the whispers of the War Between the States, which pitted brother against brother in some cases, and which continues to resonate today.
The Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery is a monument to soldiers who died without being identified. The World War I "Unknown" received the Medal of Honor, the Victoria Cross, and several other foreign nations' highest service awards. This brave individual was one of at least 116,000 Americans killed in action in what was to have been the “War to End All Wars.”
Our country lost more than 400,000 personnel killed in the war that included Omaha Beach: World War II. Though increasingly few, there are living survivors of this horrific conflict who deserve our honor and respect on Veteran’s Day.
Sometimes called “The Forgotten War,” the Korean War meant that 33,617 Americans did not return from battle. These vets also served their country honorably and don’t deserve to be forgotten.
For Vietnam vets, coming home was in some cases almost as bad as the combat conditions they endured. “Post-traumatic stress disorder” was not yet a diagnosis, and they faced a country deeply conflicted about the morality of the war they fought. Whatever our feelings about that war, it’s important to realize that the young people who fought it, both those who enlisted and those who were drafted, tried to serve their country as best they could. Of their comrades, 58,220 did not come home.
Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan: Today, we see both men and women who returned or are returning from these wars. We don’t yet know the totals of those who won’t come home and we continue to see their faces each night on television, a solemn reminder that at least up to now, there has been no “War to End All Wars.”
Only they know what they know
If you talk to veterans of any war, you quickly learn one thing: whatever they tell you, they cannot talk about their experiences to anyone who hasn’t been there. The terrible things they’ve seen, or perhaps even did, in the line of duty, the cost of war to civilians, the destruction…probably all war veterans from time immemorial suffered from what we now call PTSD as they try to learn to live post-combat.
Yet, another thing you’ll learn in talking to vets: They did it for their families and for their country. They did it for freedom and the way of life they believe in. The bonds created with their fellow soldiers lasts a lifetime—and beyond. On Veteran’s Day, those of us who have never fought salute those who have literally put their lives on the line for us.
Ain’t gonna study war no more
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, I was privileged to be a volunteer helper for a man who had flown with the RAF in both world wars. Now legally blind, and in a wheelchair, some of the time, Malcolm still fit trimly into his squadron commander uniform and wore it on special occasions.
Like many vets, he did not want to discuss his wartime experiences. But he would talk enthusiastically about the organization he was hoping to found, which he wanted to call “Wings for Peace.” Malcolm didn’t live to see that dream come true, but I believe that many veterans would agree that the very best way we can honor all of them is to do our best to find a way to peace.
Until that time comes, take some time on Veteran’s Day to salute both those who died for it, and those who came home.