The morning began like the other 19,996 days I have been fortunate enough to have lived; my eyes opened, and I breathed free air. On June 6, 2019 I got up, fed my animals, and poured a cup of coffee. Coffee in hand, I sat down in the back room I use for a home office and turned on my computer. And there among all of the assorted links to political commentary, advertiser’s content, and random news blurbs was a link to a story about World War II War Correspondent Ernie Pyle, written by David Chrisinger for The New York Times.
I hadn’t forgotten that this day was the 75th anniversary of D-Day; but as I read the article I wondered if I had truly remembered, either. Perhaps remembered isn’t an accurate way to phrase what I was thinking because certainly I remembered. I learned about World War II and D-Day in history class in school and I remember watching all of the old movies with John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Lee Marvin, and the like. I knew about World War II, perhaps more than some. I even watched Saving Private Ryan . . . but what I knew was really only easily digestible content, after all.
But the sweat of fear, the adrenaline, and the horror of people killing other people on such a vast scale is not, and should never be, easily digestible content.
I have been fortunate in my writing career to have interviewed many veterans who served in numerous wars. The constant in these interviews has been that veterans don’t go into great detail about the horrors they have experienced protecting our country. They will allude to it with comments like “it was a hot zone,” or more frequently mention friends they lost with a soul-weary sadness; but they never delve deep into the furrows war carved through their hearts and minds. No, they never told me everything; in each of those interviews I got the impression that they were still protecting their country – protecting me – from the horror and tragedy they had experienced on my and other’s behalf.
Eventually I migrated to the living room where my wife was watching television. They were showing footage of our President and the President of France at a D-Day Memorial. Some 60 veterans and family members were arrayed behind them, and one particular gentleman caught my attention. He was an old man to have lived through D-Day, and he was leaning on a younger man, for support or comfort or perhaps both. The irony of this is that, in all likelihood, the man he leaned upon was older than he himself had been when he had lived through the day the world now remembered.
And as I watched him I wondered if the sounds of the speeches were drowned out in his mind by the horrors, the triumphs, and the tragedies he had experienced a lifetime ago. Was he once again hearing the thunder of artillery fire, the cries of the wounded, and desperately barked orders? Was he seeing again the faces of the friends and comrades who had begun that day with him so long ago, only to lose their lives before the set of the sun? I suppose I will never know. But I hope his long life has been filled with enough love, light, and laughter to offset the nightmares he endured.
But a realization came to me, not for the first time, but once again crystalized in my own mind. The word hero is too small for the men and women who defend their country. They fight, and they bleed, and all too often they die to protect us. They are in peril so that we may have peace. Many surge up in the dark watches of the night, still fighting the specters of old enemies, so that we may sleep soundly in our beds. They have breathed the stench of gunpowder, sweat, and fear so that we may breathe freedom. They have shed the blood of others, and bled themselves, so that we will be safe. And that blood covers us all; the blood of heroes. I for one am grateful to live in an age where such heroes exist.