FAITH, HOPE, LIFE
I stood on the cliff overlooking Omaha Beach, Normandy, France. My hands rested on the handles of a wheelchair. The old soldier I was assisting slowly stood and pointed to where he came ashore in the second wave on D-Day, June 6, 1944. A tear formed in the corners of his eyes as he recalled wading past wounded comrades he could not help, as his job was to hit the beach and fight for a stronghold to liberate Europe—medical corpsman would attend to the wounded. He remembered the machine gun fire, the sounds of heavy artillery, the smell of diesel fuel from friendly tanks that sat disabled on the beach from enemy fire, and the utter fear that nearly overwhelmed his 19-year-old body. He was one of the lucky ones that day. He lived and continued to fight across Europe—through France, Belgium, and to the gates of the German Concentration Camp-Dachau. As he sat back down, he wiped his eyes and said he would do it all again for his great nation and its flag—the Stars and Stripes.
I was on a ten day trip with 11 WWII veterans visiting Paris, Normandy, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany. Eight of the men fought in Europe while three fought in the Pacific. The youngest was 89 and the oldest 94. They were on this Forever Young Senior Veterans Trip of Honor to heal from the emotional scars they have held within for over 70 years. Their faces may have shown many years of life, but their minds were sharp—remembering minute details about their time spent fighting for freedom against tyrannical powers. They shared freely; talking of hardships, successes, fears, and regrets; of duty, honor and country. They asked for nothing special—continuing the humble nature they and their brethren of The Greatest Generation have demonstrated since returning from the war. They were proud patriots who felt the only heroes were their fellow soldiers who did not return home and are buried in cemeteries like the two American ones we visited, Normandy and Luxembourg. As a 21-year-veteran of the U.S. Air Force, this was a bucket list trip for me.
One member of our WWII group was approached by a beautiful, young lady as we were visiting a battlefield. She knelt down in front of his wheelchair and asked about his service as a Navy Seabee during the war. After a few minutes, she told him that she was a Seabee and had just returned from Afghanistan. They talked of her service, she gave him a hearty hug, and she left with tears in her eyes. I looked at the old vet and said, “How about that!” He smiled and said, “ Well, I know now I left the Seabees way too early; we didn’t have any that looked like that.” We laughed and then he said, “She gave me hope that her generation still holds the values that we fought for—she inspired me.” And that is what our hard-fought freedom does: inspires the youngest and even the greatest Americans to have faith and believe in the goodness of our country.
Well into our tour, we were walking through the Ardennes Forest in Belgium, the front-line of American troops facing an overwhelming force of the German Army at the Battle of The Bulge. I looked over my shoulder and saw Bob, a 90-year-old WWII Marine who fought in the Pacific Campaign and later elected to continue his service in Korea and Vietnam in the Air Force. Bob stood looking at a double foxhole dug between trees by soldiers who fought in this iconic battle. He slowly came to full military attention with straight back and head held high. His right hand slowly rose into a military salute. He held the position for nearly two minutes. As his arm slowly returned to his side, I saw his shoulders sag and he nearly collapsed. I hurried to his side and put my arm around his back to support him. I just whispered that I was there and know this time must be very difficult. After a few minutes, Bob breathed deeply and through tears he said, “I lost many friends over here. Now that I have traveled where they fought and honored their memory, maybe I can start to heal.”
My time with these veterans was coming to an end and I started to reflect on my own life. As a young boy, I remember attending movies where the presentation began by all patrons standing with hands on their hearts as the National Anthem played and the American flag waved on the big screen. Newsreels from WWII would grasp our attention as lead-in for the main feature. These Newsreels taught us about the gallantry of our Greatest Generation, even though they were members of our own family or the neighbor next door—these heroes would not talk about their service or the war. They melded right back into society, building careers and raising families. They wished to forget and move forward, though many could not. These Newsreels instilled my deep desire to follow in their footsteps and become a military man.
Early in my own career, I had a commander who had spent nearly six years in captivity at the Hanoi Hilton, the infamous Vietnamese prisoner of war camp. I asked him how he survived these years of torture, isolation, starvation and humiliation. He hesitated for a few seconds, then looked very intently at me and explained. He survived because he had faith: faith in his God, faith in his country and faith in his fellow POWs. God would give him strength, comfort, and a home, whether here on earth or in heaven. Faith in the USA, that his country would not forget them or leave them there. And faith in his fellow POWs to maintain support, honor and integrity throughout the torturous ordeal. He then said, ”When you have faith, there is hope; and if you have hope, you have life.” His words of faith, hope, and life were the exact mantra I heard from the WWII veterans as they spoke of their lives.
I now have a different perspective when I look at the American flag. I don’t just see the Stars and Stripes. I see a cold and ragged army crossing the Delaware River under the leadership of General Washington; I see brother fighting brother at Gettysburg; the gassed trenches of WWI; the beaches, hedgerows, bombing, and concentration camps of WWII; the cold mountains of Korea; the rice paddies of Vietnam; and the deserts of the Middle East. I see the men and women of this great nation who sign up to give it all—including their very lives—to defend the freedoms that bind our nation. I also see a nation that is first to offer assistance to friend or foe when disaster strikes. I know our flag has some tattered edges but through faith, hope, and love, we can live and continue to honor a flag that, as Lee Greenwood sang, “..stands for freedom and they can’t take that away… God Bless the USA.”