Gunfire rains down on you from every direction. A sheer cliff looms in front of you, mocking your seemingly futile efforts to climb it. Pre-dawn ocean waves crash against your boots. Your comrades struggle and fall. It is early in the morning on June 6, 1944, in Normandy, France: D-Day. You and the other Rangers in your battalion must scale the daunting 100 foot cliff of Pointe du Hoc and disable the massive base of German firepower there. Countless lives depend on you, and failure is not an option.
This was the picture painted for me and the other students in my group as we stood at the summit of Pointe du Hoc’s sheer cliffs. Were it not for the remains of the German fortifications, one would never have guessed this peaceful bit of coastline was once the scene of so much bravery and bloodshed.
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Being only a moderate student of history, I came to Normandy with no concept of the magnitude of what happened there that summer in 1944. I was traveling with an organization called Student Leadership University, but until that time I had only scratched the surface of learning what it meant to be a true leader.
Prior to our travels, as my anticipation mounted, I gave very little thought to visiting Normandy. No, on this trip to Europe, in all my teenage wisdom, I had been most anxious to see the cliché sites such as Big Ben, Stonehenge, Notre Dame, and the Eiffel Tower: sites of the fictional heroism of books and films. As I now acknowledge with chagrin, I had very little anticipation left to give to one truly deserving stop on our trip, this site where very non-fictional characters became very real heroes.
Not far from Pointe du Hoc rest over 9,000 fallen American World War II soldiers in the Normandy American Cemetery. Across the rich green lawn sprawl rows upon rows of simple white crosses, each engraved with a name and date of death. However, as I meandered through this graveyard, each cross ceased to mark simply a cold grave, but rather became representative of the individual whose name it bore, a very human individual with a home, a family and a courage that superseded all else.
After our time at the cemetery, our group spent the afternoon at Omaha Beach, one of the bloodiest landing sites of the entire invasion. As I stood looking over the serene water, feeling the cool sand squish between my toes, I tried to envision the scene as it was on that fateful June morning so many years ago.
In my mind’s eye, the beach’s crystal blue waves turned crimson, and the sand between my toes sloshed with blood. As my imaginative reverie subsided, I was again struck by the courage of the invading D-Day soldiers. To see such gory destruction ensuing, and yet still to have the determination to step out of your ship’s pseudo-safety and into the turbulent waters of battle, is nearly incomprehensible to me. What is more, some of these soldiers were mere teenagers, practically my peers.
Throughout my high school years up to now, I have been to countless seminars and training sessions meant to teach me about leadership. However, never had I learned so much about what it means to lead, to take a stand when all your comrades are falling, when perhaps even your commanding officer has perished, when the odds seem wildly against you, and when all hope seems lost. On that day, standing where so many genuine heroes once stood, I received a true lesson in leadership.
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