Our hometown paper has a front page article about D Day. It is the 70th anniversary of that fateful day when Allied troops began the push to liberate Europe. Because it is the anniversary, there has been more media attention this year than previous years. It talks about how the battle was the turning point in the war. It talks about the heroism. It talks about a decisive victory. It tells the story of young men who went to war.
I have known a few men who stormed the beaches of Normandy. Some of the ones I have known have never talked about it. Ever. What little knowledge I have gained has been from their spouses. They are hesitant to receive honor just because they survived “a decisive battle.” It rained bullets and they successfully dodged them. Some of them made it ashore only to be captured and held by the enemy they were supposed to take down. Some watched from the boats as the water turned red with the blood of their friends. They shy away from questions or accolades. Survivor’s guilt plagues many of them. At the mention of their great exploits, tears are quick to surface even though their tongues remain mute. They do not feel they are worthy of such praise.
Others share the horror and joy of setting skeletal captives free from concentration camps. They instruct and tell their stories for future generations, so that history will not repeat itself. They describe the brutality, and the victory in hopes that children will not forget the sacrifice of so many lives…in hopes for a more peaceful future. They are witnesses of history and there are fewer and fewer of them every day. They have received honors, standing in the place of all their buddies who didn’t make it. They bow their heads in respect, knowing that they are but a small number of those who deserve such attention.
Their responses to their place in history are as varied as they are. Once your eyes have beheld death in such huge numbers, once you have observed what humans are capable of you take stock of your life. It is the one common denominator that I have seen that ties all the survivors together. They cherish life, because they know how precious it is. They love freedom, because they know what bondage looks like up close. The images seemed etched in their minds like a painting that changes your perspective. A filter through which everything else is viewed. Humility is realizing your place in the world. Knowing that one inch in a different direction and you would be gone. Knowing that life goes on despite the monumental things you have witnessed. Choices made after that point are not made without consideration of ramifications to your children. Carrying this knowledge of the cost has been a heavy burden for these men throughout their lives. The humbleness in which they carry it, is as inspirational as it is rare. It is why they are called The Greatest Generation. It is my hope that our generation has learned from them, and while we cannot carry a burden that we did not bear witness to in the way that they did, we can embrace the values they embody. It is up to us to use what they have taught us. It is my prayer that we will.