The summer I was 18, my mother insisted that we visit the American cemetery at Omaha Beach. Before we left for France, my father insisted that we watch the movie “The Longest Day.” With all of the arrogance of a then 17-year-old, I watched the movie and thought that it was misnamed. It should have been “The Longest Movie.”
At the cemetery, I saw a veteran on the walkway, openly weeping. My life began to change.
On the hillside, you can still see where the mortars hit. Children splash through the gentle waves right where young men died. How incongruous! As I stood looking at the English Channel and at that beach, I imagined the noise, the smoke, fog, confusion, smell of cordite, blood and saltwater. What I did not imagine until I watched “Saving Private Ryan” was those dying, young men calling out for their mothers. Every time I watch the opening sequence, I cry so hard I can’t breathe.
But that day in 1985, I wasn’t a mother. I didn’t think along those lines. I was a teenager, a recent high school graduate, a kid with her whole life laying out in front of her.
At the cemetery, there are stark rows and rows of crosses and stars marking the graves. There are porticoes with enameled maps detailing the invasion and subsequent troop movements. There is beautiful rose garden. And, behind that beautiful rose garden is a marble wall carved with names. I didn’t walk through the rows of graves, but I read those names from one side to the other. Those were the names of the missing – those soldiers took direct hits, drowned and never reached the shore, or whose bodies were carried from the beach by the tide before they could be recovered. And those soldiers were 17. 18. 19. They were my age. They were my friends. They were Joey, Dow, John, Lee, Rob, and Carlisle.
They were my age and they were living it – seeing those sights, smelling the odors, hearing the sounds and running through the chaos I could only imagine. They were stepping over the bodies of friends they’d played poker with the night before. They showed a level of bravery I have never had to show, hope never to have to and , truly, can’t even imagine. They were kids and they took Europe back one inch at a time.
Last week, I wrote about my childhood friend who is a deployed chaplain in the army. He has accepted the challenge to run a total of 300 miles before his deployment ends in September. I was giving him a hard time about being an old man and needing to get it in gear, then I remembered three rocks from Pointe du Hoc and a Christmas gift I once gave.
I gave my aunt a box of receipts. I saved the receipts from every single purchase I made that year. I started on 1 January and gave it to her on Christmas. She said that it was the best gift she’d gotten because, although it started as a joke, I had thought of her every time I bought something. That shoe box was a tangible display of loving thoughts.
I told Ronnie that I would walk/run those 300 miles with him, then I challenged you to join me. Several of you have and I’ll be posting updates on your mileage on Saturdays (so be sure to email them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org). Those steps, those miles will be receipts to those soldiers we don’t know. Politics aside, with every step we make, we are thinking of them, wishing them a safe and speedy return home. Although I’ve referred to only the masculine soldiers, we are talking about our sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, mothers and fathers. We want them home and if it helps their morale even the tiniest bit to know that strangers are praying for them, sending them good wishes, positive thoughts, or whatever with every step we take, then I say it’s worth it.
This weekend, five of those soldiers were lost. Let’s walk the rest of them home.