On a warm, breezy August afternoon back in the mid 1980s a French couple dropped me off near Colleville-sur-mer, in Normandy. I had been hitch hiking through Europe for several weeks during a college break and I had decided to spend some time at the American Cemetery and Memorial near Omaha Beach. The many tourist buses and cars that were scattered around the parking lot entrance belied the ominous silence that had settled here and remained soon after the chaotic and deadly morning of June 6, 1944.
Thousands of crosses sprout from the rolling green hills above the beaches and disappear into the horizon. Beneath the sea of white markers lay the thousands of American men who charged head on that day into a nightmare of flying German lead. It's hard to describe the effect all of this has on an American tourist: a quickening breath, a weak and unsteady stride, a certain flush of grief, and then the tears.
Some images return to me from my visit that day -- elderly couples arm in arm, a lone individual on his knees before a cross, and other tourists made immovable by the sheer weight of sacrifice that still hangs in the air here. But what I remember most of all is the silence. But for some muffled sobbing audible in the distance the American Memorial here is deadly silent - a testament to both the reverence and humble gratitude that stirs the soul of each new visitor.
For me, that distant and quiet image was shaken last week when I heard that our new First Lady, Michelle Obama, had chosen Fort Bragg to mark the first official stop on her much heralded campaign for "military families." According to Mrs. Obama:
"I think I was like most Americans -- pretty oblivious to the life of military families. Sort of taking it for granted."
Just last year however Mrs. Obama openly called America a "downright mean country" and characterized Americans themselves as "guided by fear" and other unseemly motives. This kind of vitriol goes beyond "oblivious" however and represents the vision of a woman who has taken much more than our military families for granted. Had it not been for the early successes that followed her husband's presidential campaign, it is doubtful the 45 year old Michelle would have found much to like about America:
"For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country."
This is the same America that opened the doors to an elite education, a six figure salary, and other perks to a woman who admits her test scores weren't impressive. Still, despite the kind of red carpet treatment and largesse most of us can only dream about, Michelle found little that was praiseworthy about America. I guess Omaha Beach was off her radar too. My suspicion is that Michelle Obama's newfound interest in military families is a political maneuver to distract the public from her earlier lack of class and gratitude.
When Memorial Day arrives, my wife and young children dress up early and we all drive out to Golden Gate National Cemetery just south of San Francisco. Somewhere among the thousands of military graves there is a special young man we invite into our home each year. While our children plant their flags my wife and I wander through the endless graves searching. Last year our special guest was buried near a tree in a plot that had seen little sun. He was 18 years old when he was killed in Europe in early 1945.
The six of us join arms around his grave and say a prayer. We tell him we are so sorry he died so young without having known the joy of marriage and children. We thank him for giving his life so that we can enjoy these and other gifts. Our children wonder if he is happy in heaven. Before leaving we commit his name to memory and that evening we set a place for him at our table. With our glasses raised we thank him once again for his profound sacrifice. We promise to try to remember him.