It was one of the most amazing experiences I've had in my life to date. My family was on a European history tour with a group of our closest friends and we stopped in Normandy for several days. I'll never forget the scent of that place. We drove through the French countryside for hours that first day and when everyone was exhausted, our buses finally pulled into the tiny hamlet on Juno Beach. The air was so thick, it was cold and windy and the rain started to fall. It smelled like salty seaweed. Our group unloaded into the small waterfront hotel/restaurant and sat down to a warm meal. It was dusky outside and I watched the beach during dinner. It literally looked like the famous D-Day beach photos, vast, and grey with long shallow waves.
Our tour had been going strong for a good week and by now we were all completely worn out from the travel, having lost track of cities, towns and even countries. After dinner, dad picked up the keys to our beach house, since the hotel was at capacity, and we started off down the street. It felt like a ghost town, just a few street lights and not a person around, the wheels on our suitcases squeaked as they rolled along the sandy sidewalk. The beach house was nothing special, just a two story, undecorated rental, but the view was incredible. There was a jasmine bush next to the front door that produced the most wonderful, sweet floral scent, I took to taking deep breaths every time I went past.
The next few days were a flurry of activity, with day trips to other tiny French towns, all of them celebrating freedom. We were shocked at the kindness shown to us Americans and had a grand time meeting all kinds of people. My brothers were a part of a reenactment for 101 Airborne and my sisters and I even got into the costumes thing as well. A group of American veterans met up with our group. They told us story after story of the times they'd had and the things they'd seen, often stopping mid-sentence because the words wouldn't come out. They were so brave. Some of the men cried openly, remembering the friends they had lost and the ones who never came home. They often told us that they weren't the real heroes "the men who died were the heroes, I was just lucky" they'd say "We just did what we had to do."
The evening of June 6, 2011 our group hosted an old fashioned party to honor the vets and thank them as best we could. It was held in this ancient french chateau and there was live USO Show style music and several special speeches throughout. It was like traveling back in time.
I sat in my chair and watched as my brothers stood on stage with the other men and veterans and I suddenly realized that it must have felt like just yesterday that these dear old men were young and strong, standing in uniform. They once had sweethearts and family back at home and were full of hope (and a little bit of youthful stubbornness). Not unlike my brothers at all. They had no idea what they were in for, nor, what they were capable of then. And now, here they were, 60-something years later, looking back over a lifetime and remembering. That changed me forever, I saw them in a completely different light. So very human and mortal.
I was given a whole new appreciation for my Great Grandfather who was in Normandy at D-Day +10. He was a wonderful man who was very close with my mother, but died when I was in my mid-teens. He did some incredible things during his time in WWII, but rarely shared any of it. We could only imagine what he had seen ten days after the invasion. His war experiences were too traumatic to even speak of. He was a real hero, but he would stick with the other vets and tell you everyday of the week that it wasn't him, it was the other guys who didn't come home who were the real heroes. I'm so thankful for the brave men and women who have served our country. And to God for letting me grow up in a country surrounded by freedom.
God bless America!