GWU Student Veteran Reflections
US Army 2005-10
My grandfather was in grade school living on Oahu Island when Japanese pilots attacked Pearl Harbor. When he was old enough he joined the U.S. Army, but by then World War II had come and gone and the Korean War had just ended. Years later, I would join the Army and spend 15 months in Iraq. My grandfather and I never talked about it and to this day I think about what it means to share our experiences with others.
Traveling to Normandy, I was anxious to hear what the D-day Veterans would share. What parts of their story would they tell? What parts would they keep to themselves? I pictured these men, ancient heroes of yesterday, talking about grief and pain, and mourning the years that passed them by. But meeting them was different than I imagined. Instead I found the Veterans of D-day to be like the heroes of today. Like the Veterans I served with only a few years ago, they still smiled, they still joked, and they still strut.
At first I worried that I was not processing the experience correctly. Should I have felt a deeper sense of pride at their accomplishments? I did. Should I have felt a deeper sense of respect? I did. But what I gained from interacting with these men, above anything else, was a sense of happiness. Aside from stories of battle, they shared stories of their families and beamed when they looked at the children and grandchildren who accompanied them on the trip. They shared their happiness for the opportunity to reunite with the people of Normandy once again and to sit down to share what could be their last meal together.
Often when we think of war we think of sadness and loss and death. These soldiers were there to remember their fallen comrades and we should all be thankful for their sacrifice. We got the world at their expense. But they were also there to celebrate the happiness in life that came after the war, and that gave me hope. My generation grew up with war in the background, but I learned that war does not have to define us. Meeting the D-Day Veterans taught me that we can still joke, we can still smile, and we can still strut. And we have our whole lives ahead of us to create happiness.
U.S. Marine Corp 2006-11
Growing up, I had read or seen movies about the events of D-Day. Being able to accompany the soldiers that were actually there was an experience like no other. It let me feel a connection to the events, like I was a part of the history, in a way that no film, no matter how realistic, could ever hope to convey.
Like the men we accompanied, I also served in the military. I was in the Marines and fought in Afghanistan. Even though it was such a short period of time compared to my life overall, it was a defining moment for me. It’s difficult for me sometimes to even see myself through any other lens besides that of my wartime experiences. I’m still not entirely sure what other kind of person I can be but a Marine.
I think the veterans of the 29th can appreciate that feeling. Even after 70 years, I could see them close their eyes and go back in time. They’re all old men now, but in those moments, they are in their twenties, storming a beach, facing the machine gun fire in terror and bravery. They fought for their way of life, for the families, and for their country. They returned home to a grateful nation, but one which would never understand (how could they?) what they had just been through. And that was the point of their service. Their families, their homes, their loved ones, should never have to experience or understand the realities of war. It is why these reunions are so important for veterans like them. In moments when they are together, no words need to be spoken. They can simply look at each other and say “I know,” the feelings of pride mixed with guilt, remorse mixed with celebration, for all they did and saw in the war.
During the ceremonies, I thought a lot about how my own experiences will be remembered, whether there will ever be anniversaries or reunions in Afghanistan for the Marines I served with. I feel it to have been an extraordinary privilege to have been a part of this trip. I left for France with a deep sense of respect for what they lived through. I returned to the US with a sense of awe. As a fellow veteran, as an American, and as a citizen of the world, I’m immensely grateful for everything those men did seventy years ago in Normandy.