Memorial Day - Normandy

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This Memorial Day, if you can - make the trip to the World War II war memorial in Normandy, France..

Regardless of your age or veteran status - whether you are a pure civilian or military retiree - if you have never seen this particular place on the planet, it is one that should be included in one of those books that covers the "thousand places you should see before you die."

If there is a magical, go-back-in-time, historical location in the world ... Normandy, France, is it.

  • The craters from the World War II Allied bombing and shelling of the Normandy shoreline are still there. Nearly seventy years later, the depressions in the ground are carpeted with grass, but the holes are still as deep as they were on June 6, 1944. The photo top right in this article does not do justice to the Swiss cheese appearance of the ground around the area - you have to visit it to see it.
  • The German artillery pieces, machine gun nest emplacements, and concrete bunkers still litter the tops of the cliffs. Much of the weaponry would still be operational, except for the lead plugs placed in the barrels after the war.
  • The Normandy bluffs are lined along the top with new barbed wire obstacles, but the wooden fences and metal barbs along the edges were installed to keep tourists like you and I from falling off the cliffs that the US Army Rangers climbed and assaulted on D-Day.
  • The cemeteries are some of the most ornate in the world - and they are expansive. You don't need to pitch in to tidy up any of the graves. Everything is clean and well maintained by the locals. You can place a flag or flowers on a particular grave if you wish.

The most interesting aspect of Normandy is that the locals and many of the tourists who visit still respect Americans, or at least that was the impression I was given when I visited in 1997. After more than a quarter century of being stationed overseas and working abroad, I still see Normandy as one of the few places outside of our borders where foreigners truly like Americans (sad, but true - because we help a lot of people around the world).

The atmosphere around Normandy does not feel like the usual political quid pro quo that is easy to find these day - something for something, aye - "thank you for saving us from a foreign army menace" - as much as there is general wonder at what we accomplished during World War II.

Normandy is like a huge American flag flapping in the wind on the European continent that signals our true intent and more importantly - our potential.

Things to commemorate and celebrate on your next Memorial Day:

  • Celebrate your freedom to commemorate Memorial Day in any way you choose - wherever you are at on the planet. Take your hat off to the freedom that you have to travel to Normandy, France, for example - because there are still a small number of communist countries that do not let their citizens travel the world. Plus, Americans may not be "rich" in the American sense of the world, but many of us have enough money to travel and see the world - and the majority of world citizens do not (have enough money to fly to Normandy and stay in a hotel for a few days).
  • Respect world veterans from near or from afar. It is the politicians that start the wars. The service members are the stuckees trying finish the wars - and these uniformed guys and gals are the same ones whose names you tend to see on grave markers in military cemeteries. If you don't know anything about the military, go see Act of Valor. Or, have a conversation with an old fogey wearing one of those pin-festooned hats at a parade (there were 291,557 American combat deaths in World War II, not sure how many living World War II vets remain). Have a beer at a local veteran's of foreign wars club and strike up a conversation. You might get lucky and actually talk to someone who furthered democracy on the beaches of Normandy - or who did the same from a frozen hillside in Korea (33,686 combat deaths, South Korea got the democracy, North Korea got the short end of the stick - their people are still literally starving) - or attempted to further democracy while wading through a steaming rice paddy in Vietnam (47,424 war dead) - or while driving in a sandstorm in Iraq (3,542 deaths - they're still fighting over there, if you had not heard) - or while trying to maintain their footing on a ridgeline in Afghanistan (1,435 dead so far). Don't politicize the concept of furthering democracy. Just follow the example of the musicians and Hollywood types who leave politics out of it, and pay tribute to veterans who allow free people to do their thing. There are only a small number of people who are capable of suiting up and doing military things in far away lands - so respect the practice even if you choose to not, or cannot, participate.
  • Have a little awe for overseas folk in general - US citizens and their host nations. We still have American bases in Germany - although most Americans think we shut everything down in the 1990s at the "end" of the ongoing Cold War. If you've never had the opportunity to work overseas, please, by all means, consider giving it a shot and join the hundreds of thousands of civilians doing interesting things in foreign countries. These patriots are also protecting your freedoms in foreign lands, and many also end up as unreported casualties in combat zones.
  • Take a good look at the American flag. It's still cool in some place in America to fly ol' Stars and Stripes on a big pole in your front yard, and what does that mean for the future of America? I don't know about the American states and cities in which front page news stories appear covering the latest person being sued because they want to fly an American flag on their property - but in the places where it's still cool, it means that we have the freedom to fly a flag or not fly a flag. The American flag, by the way, is highly respected at the aforementioned overseas US bases - where it is often raised and lowered around sunrise and sunset each day by combat-hardened veterans who are required by regulation to salute the flag. A number of these same young men and women have also saluted flag-draped caskets coming off airplanes - you know, the coffins containing the combat veterans who didn't make it home from the wars - the ones who personify Memorial Day. Memorial Day isn't Flag Day, nor is it Veterans Day - but if someone were trying to take away my right to fly my country's flag - I would fly it as often as possible - just to make a point.

So. Once you have considered your personal freedoms, and you arrived at having the freedom - if you cannot make the trip to Normandy this year or next, go ahead and cook some burgers and safely celebrate in your backyard or wherever you choose to celebrate - because you have the freedom to do so.

Note from the author: Memorial Day is US federal holiday, but it is celebrated at overseas bases and embassies the world over.

Combat deaths source: Wikipedia.

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