Recalling those whose service then and now makes us free
Earlier this month, 100 South Carolinian veterans of World War II came to Washington to see the World War II memorial. This magnificent monument fittingly occupies a central place on the nation's Mall and honors the men and women and their comrades who fought not just for America's freedom but also for the liberation of millions under tyranny. For me, the son of a World War II veteran who passed away last year, it was a highlight to rub shoulders with this band of brothers and thank them for their service.
The years have not dimmed their love of country or their pride in defending it. I saw the same passion, pride and courage among our troops earlier this year in Iraq and Afghanistan — different generations, different wars, but the same tenacious commitment. It was a personal and powerful illustration that freedom really is a sacred gift from one generation to another—one that is awesome in its privileges and its burdens.
Such burdens become even more vivid when the old veterans tell their stories — stories not about themselves but of those who didn't come home. A few years ago, I had the privilege of hosting the commemorative service for the veterans of the D-Day invasion. Over 200 of them gathered along with their families for a medal ceremony honoring the South Carolinians who fought on the beaches of Normandy a lifetime ago. Time had touched these once jaunty GIs.
Their strong faces were captured in fading photographs on display, but now their hair is silver, their shoulders a bit stooped. Some carried canes where once they carried rifles; others in wheelchairs took their place in the ranks. Congressmen and generals were there to present them with medals, and on receiving them, they snapped salutes with esprit. Their children brushed away tears of pride while some of the old warriors brushed away tears of memory — memories of friends now resting beneath rows of white crosses in the green fields of Normandy.
Their sacrifice reminded me of a dispatch sent back by the great war correspondent Ernie Pyle shortly after the French beachhead was secured. He walked along the shore and later wrote:
"It extended in a thin little line, just like a high-water mark, for miles along the beach. This was the strewn personal gear, gear that would never be needed again by those who fought and died to give us our entrance into Europe.
"There were toothbrushes and razors, and snapshots of families back home staring up at you from the sand. ...
"Two of the most dominant items in the beach refuse were cigarettes and writing paper. Each soldier was issued a carton of cigarettes just before he started. That day those cartons by the thousand, water-soaked and spilled out, marked the line of our first savage blow.
"Writing paper and air-mail envelopes came second. The boys had intended to do a lot of writing in France. The letters--now forever incapable of being written--that might have filled those blank abandoned pages."
We are left to fill those blank pages, and this Memorial Day we get to write a little note of thanks on them and pledge that we will not forget those who served and sacrificed during freedom's crucial hour — then and now.
Jim DeMint is a United States senator from South Carolina.