Faces and stories convey the true meaning of Memorial Day

  • Published
  • By Gen. Roger Brady
  • U.S. Air Forces in Europe commander
This year's Memorial Day weekend blessed me with another incredible experience made possible by my current position. Like the rest of the Air Force, USAFE Airmen are covered many venues around the continent, providing static displays at air shows, honor guards, flybys, music from our USAFE band and laying wreaths at cemeteries.

I participated in two events in Paris. The first was a wreath laying at the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs Elysees, and the second was another wreath laying and brief remarks at the American cemetery in Suresnes, a suburb of Paris. The ceremonies were like most others we have all seen, but neither the flags, the music, the poignant speeches or even the flyby were what lingers in my memory of this day. It was the faces and the stories. Some were the hopeful, enthusiastic faces of young school children who stood just beneath the arch, singing the French and American anthems. Lining our way from the curb to the arch were young French soldiers, some hardly beyond childhood themselves, proudly standing at attention in ranks across from equally young and proud American Airmen. There were old Frenchmen, veterans, tanned and weathered by time and the rigors of life, standing proudly erect though age had taken its toll and war, in some cases, had taken limbs. There were at least 25 of them, many with faded red berets perched jauntily on thinning, grey heads. Old, worn suit coats bore service ribbons and medals proudly displayed across their chests. Each carried a large French flag with battle streamers or bearing the insignia of their units.

I shook the veterans' hands and thanked them for their service. Their eyes were not dimmed by the years. Their hands, the rough, calloused hands of men who had lived hard lives, were amazingly strong and their grip was firm and determined. Most spoke little English, but it did not deter them from telling their story. As I passed along the line, I heard "Vive la France","Vive l'America" and hurried attempts to tell me where and with what unit they had served.

Among the crowd at the arch were also a number of women, some the widows of fallen servicemen. One French lady, standing beside my wife, Litha, in the crowd, said, "My husband is buried in the crypt here. He has been dead for fifty years, but I still love him very much." Another lady, probably in her mid-seventies, came up to me and said, "I'm so honored you are here. I am a seventh generation, direct descendant of Lafayette."

From the arch we drove about thirty minutes to Suresnes cemetery. Before the ceremony, we ate a picnic lunch among the veterans, and they told me their stories. One particular man, clutching his French flag, stood on one leg supported by a peg attached where his other leg had been, with one arm hanging uselessly at his side. He told me of his experience with the French Resistance, the atrocities he had witnessed in North Africa, and how he had lost his leg in Vietnam. Probably realizing I am not a young man myself, he asked if I had served in Vietnam, and seemed pleased that I had.

I also talked to American veterans who make an annual pilgrimage to France for Memorial Day remembrances. One gentleman told me of his experiences as a medic on the beaches of Normandy in June, 1944. He was there with one of his grandsons. Another grandson, a brother of the young man with him, was a soldier killed last week in Iraq.

Another gentleman did not, and perhaps could not, speak at all. He just opened his wallet and showed me an identification card indicating he had served in an American bomb group in World War II.

From lunch, we went to the memorial site where there were speeches, music, a 2-ship flyby from the Liberty Wing at Lakenheath and the laying of wreaths before the veterans marched with their flags down the hill to form a cordon for our departure. I shook their hands again, wished them well, and thanked our Airmen who had served as honor guard for the memorial service.

These faces, their stories, and the image of 1,565 American graves on a hillside in France make me grateful for the heritage that generation of Americans, Frenchmen and other Allies has given us, and for that same spirit of sacrifice I see in the Airmen I am privileged to lead every day. This day also reminds me that as leaders we must spend ourselves ensuring that spirit is nourished in our lives, in our Airmen and in our Allies and friends, and that we must be prepared to prevail, by force if necessary, to protect all we hold dear when every other effort fails. It was a good day.