This June 6, Lauren Hale talks about the memorial that comes after Memorial Day.
Bedford, Virginia is a slip of a town nestled beneath the Peaks of Otter, part of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s a simple southern town with a renewed bustling Main Street. If you were to drive through, you might comment on the charm of the buildings. Or the way the Peaks of Otter frames the village from a distance. But what you wouldn’t realize upon just driving through is that per capita, Bedford, Virginia lost more soldiers than any other locale on June 6, 1944. This tremendous loss, a mourning never again repeated here, played a large role in the development of the National D-Day Monument’s location just on the outskirts of town.
A local veteran, Bob Slaughter, dreamed of a memorial to provide a gathering place for those who fought at Normandy that bloody day 68 years ago. His dream is realized in a breathtaking memorial sitting atop a hill. The memorial is comprised of a fountain and pool featuring statues of soldiers crawling as sprays of water shoot forth as if the water were being struck by gunfire. Behind the pool, a large wall featuring climbing soldiers draws your attention to the large black and grey granite arch, which reads OVERLORD across the top in gold letters.
The most important aspect of this memorial site however, is not the breathtaking scenes. It’s the plaques with the names of all the soldiers who lost their lives on June 6, 1944. They wrap around a tremendous semi-circle just beyond the fountain, name after name of men filled with courage and valour who bravely sacrificed their lives in order to defeat Hitler’s forces.
I sat on a bench within that semi-circle today and listened to various speakers share their stories about D-Day. Dark clouds rolled in, rain began to softly fall, and the 101st Airborne stood at attention. Halfway through the service, April Cheek-Messier, the Vice President for Operations & Education for the National D-Day Memorial Foundation, requested that any D-Day veterans in attendance come forward and stand for recognition. We were asked to keep our places if we were not veterans. As the veterans filed forward, the crowd began to stand. Once the veterans were lined up, we clapped and cheered for them. A swelling grew in my chest and tears threatened to slide down my face as I stood in awe of these amazing men who put their lives in death’s very path, survived, and continued to support their fellow comrades; past, present, and future.
One of the speakers made reference to the character it takes to be a soldier. He reminded us that on D-Day, many of the soldiers on that beach were not drafted into service. “There are two points,” he said, “at which a soldier’s character is revealed. One is when he signs up for service. The other is when he puts himself in a situation in which he could lose his life…Both points are never forgotten by every soldier.”
After the event, as I wandered around the semi-circle to read several names, look at the wreaths, and remind myself of the stuff of which America is made, I found an old high school friend. He enlisted 14 years ago and was there as part of the 101st. While we talked, two older men, obviously veterans themselves, made a point to come up to my friend, shake his hand, and thank him for his service. The enduring camaraderie, respect, character, and integrity of being a soldier caught in the grip between them.
Today marks the day when we lost over 4,000 of the Greatest Generation. It’s not marked like Memorial Day or Veterans Day by most. In fact, I attended Memorial Day services at the National D-Day Monument. Today’s event was not nearly as well attended. The crowd was smaller, the mood heavier, and the remembrance more focused. Today means no less than last Monday.
One of the last good memories of my grandfather involved attending a play about when the news of Bedford’s tremendous loss reached home. The telegraph was non-stop. Messages transcribed, delivered, tears, outpouring of support, silence. My grandfather, well into his 70s, sat beside me in the darkened theatre. At one point, I turned to glance at him. His face was covered in tears as the action carried out on stage. Shortly thereafter, so was mine. I wore his dog tag to the National D-Day Remembrance event today, in his memory.
Take a minute today. Take five. Remember the Greatest Generation. The soldiers who so courageously gave their lives under the order of General Dwight D. Eisenhower on June 6, 1944, the day the Allied forces refused to accept anything less than victory.
We owe them much more than a moment of silence but it is the least we can all do for them on this 68th anniversary of the Normandy Invasion — D-Day.
Photo courtesy Lauren Hale.