It was a hot 4th of July afternoon when I found myself strolling through row upon row of markers within Normandy American Cemetery. This hallowed perch overlooks Omaha Beach where not long ago the surf and tide were red with the courage of heroes.
As I walked, I saw a solitary veteran in a worn and tattered uniform with medals strewn across it not twenty yards away. I introduced myself to him and we walked and talked for a bit. As we talked, I made note of his Bronze Star, the shining Silver Star, and the well polished Legion of Merit. Impressed and youthful, I remarked that he had earned a lot of medals for bravery during the war.
That remark stopped him dead in his tracks. He looked up from the markers surrounding us, put his hand on my shoulder, and looked me square in the eyes. His breathe paused as he pointed me to all the headstones, and then with measured words he said, “Son, they give you medals for being lucky. They give you marble for being brave. The men who will call this bluff home forever, they’re the heroes.”
The poignancy of that statement landed upon my shoulders with the weight of a 9,387 headstones. In a moment, my youthful perceptions of what heroism and bravery meant vanished with just a few softly spoken words.
We talked for a few more minutes, but it was clear that he was entering a place in his memories where I couldn’t go. It was a place in the past he needed to travel to alone, so, we shook hands and both went off to continue our solitary vigils. As a veteran, he continued walking the rows upon rows of his fallen brothers remembering them and the lives they never got to live. I, as a visitor to that sacred place, walked down the bluff and towards the beach for my own reflections.
As I strolled upon the soft sand, I looked out into the distance of the nearly mile long stretch of beach. In the distance, I could see families, couples, and visitors having picnics. They were flying kites. A few of the more intrepid were swimming in the chilly waters of the Chanel. They were having fun and enjoying a summer’s afternoon with nary a care in the world.
In that moment, I felt a pain and an anger that began to burn from deep within. Here we were, visitors on this sacred ground that had been paid for with the blood of thousands of men and boys not much older than I was at the time…and people were picnicking on the sands where young men had taken their last breaths of life.
An earthquake brewed within me as the emotions welled up inside me. I was quickly overwhelmed and collapsed onto the sand and began to weep. I was hurt. I was disgusted. I was shocked. I was angry.
And, there I sat with tears streaming down my face as if a waterfall had been unleashed from my soul.
Not far away, a young couple began walking towards me. The young man noticed my fixed gaze blazing down the beach like the barrels of an angry cannon. Courageously, he decided to approach me.
I was redder than a tomato and crying worse than a Yankee fan during the playoffs. I certainly would not have even dared approach someone like me in that situation. However, he could clearly see I was an American and he had something he wanted to say.
Without asking, the couple sat down beside me. The sound of the surf only broken by the faint sounds of laughter and frivolity just a few hundred yards away. The man, really just a boy a few years younger than I, looked at me and then pointed to the top of the bluff and waved his hand on down the beach. In nearly perfect English he said, “They came here so that we can be free. They died so that we could live.”
Talk about a 4th of July that flipped my entire worldview. In less than an hour, my view of life and the world around me had been forced open by just a few short sentences from complete strangers. A simple flip of the looking glass had made me realize that the young man was right, and what those people doing just down the beach was the very reason so many Americans, Brits, Canadians, and Frenchmen had laid down their lives during the Normandy campaign.
They had died so that we could hold picnics. So that we could hold hands, and fly kites, and swim in the sometimes tumultuous and unsure seas of freedom. Those families, couples, and tourists frolicking on those sands that day weren’t being disrespectful; they were doing the very things those young men wanted them to do. They were living. They were celebrating freedom. They were paying their respects by living life in the very place where their freedom had been purchased.
A smile starting to return to my face, I pulled a bottle of wine from my backpack, and on those now peaceful sands the three of us toasted the men who had fallen that day. We toasted what they stood for, and what they died defending.
After nearly a half-hour of chatting, the couple stood up and continued their stroll down the beach. After about 50 feet, the young man turned around, smiled, and shouted “Viva les Américains! Viva les 4th of July!”
I simply smiled and raised my bottle in a toast of understanding for what those words really mean. For the next hour or so I simply sat there listening to the surf as it gently rolled in. On the bluffs behind me, the marble monuments standing guard in Normandy American Cemetery a permanent reminder to the world that the deeds of brave men are what sow the seeds of a peaceful future.