There are very few times in my life where I felt a sense of patriotism, loss, and thankfulness all at once. One of these times occurred in June 2008 as I went on a trip with my People to People Student Ambassador group to Europe. Almost all of the sites we saw over the course of a month were all valuable to history, but one struck a deep chord within my soul. It was none other than Normandy, France.
It was a quiet, crisp morning as we stepped off the large tour bus just outside of the Normandy American cemetery just on the coast of France. Everything was still except for the waves crashing in the distance, keeping a soft murmur of noise in the background. It was as if even nature was stopping out of respect for those who had fallen. Not even the dull hum of a bumblebee could be heard.
Entering the museum wasn’t so much of a big deal. I remember thinking, “I know people have died here, but it isn’t that big of a deal.” My eyes glanced over artifacts scavenged from World War II. One of the saddest items in the whole museum had to be a small, brown covered teddy bear. The bear was worn out from love and war, from hugs and destruction. One of its eyes was missing, and the fur was almost completely rubbed off. Yet it had clung on, and was not totally destroyed from the ravages of the bombs.
Passing through the glass cases of relics I stepped out the backdoor and into the cemetery itself. Off to the distance was the English Channel, and shortly off the beach were thickets of trees and brush. The cemetery itself was encircled in stone barricade, protecting visitors from sliding down the rough hill. The pathway was made out of stones, leading me to where the dead were buried. Standing up in the grass were signs that read, “Be Respectful, Be Quiet.” Even if I hadn’t read the sign, I would have been completely silent. There was an eerie feeling creeping into my chest, as if the spirits had taken my hands and were leading me to the gravesites.
As I rounded the corner I stopped dead in my tracks. Marble crosses upon marble crosses were in neat rows, rising out against the emerald grass. Bright flowers were sometimes laid across the ground in front of the crosses. A few families were gathered around one or two of the crosses, all of the members huddled together in remembrance, and for the younger in the group, for an initial meeting of the dead.
As I walked through the crosses, sometimes reading the names and sometimes only reading that the person was a buried comrade who could not be identified. Some of the grave markers weren’t crosses at all. Some were actually Stars of David, with a small stone perched on one of the legs of the star. At one point I reached up to knock one of the stones off, thinking it was someone placing a rock randomly on one of the Stars, but then I realized all of them had it. I dropped my hand.
Walking among these great soldiers turned something inside of me. Something that had never been turned before. Now the reality of the loss America suffered at Normandy hit me. We had paid a terrible price to bring freedom back into France, but preserving freedom always has a price that many are willing to pay. I am forever grateful to these men.
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