In Support of Freedom

On June 6, 1944 the combined forces of the United States, Great Britain and Canada stormed the Normandy beaches of France. The object of this endeavor wasn’t simply to defeat Nazi Germany, but to defend the very concept of freedom itself. We owe the combined air, sea and land forces of the Allied forces an immense debt of gratitude for what they did for us that day.

American historian Daniel Walker Howe once wrote, “When looking back at the past, things have an air of inevitability about them.” To put it generously, victory on D-Day was uncertain at best. Landing craft faced stormy seas crossing the English Channel. The logistics of coordinating an invasion this complex without the benefit of computers or satellite technology astonishes the modern mind. Upon reaching the European mainland forces then had to contend with Hitler’s ‘Atlantic Wall’ defenses. General Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, even drafted a statement taking personal responsibility for the Allied defeat.

The fact that I have the freedom to write this and you have the freedom to read it shows that D-Day succeeded.

While drinking my morning coffee I reflected on this pivotal point in human history. I recalled the many afternoons I spent with my grandfather, Jack McKeon. He served in the 79th Infantry Division during the Second World War. Among the liberating forces, his unit was the second of what would become Lieutenant-General George Patton’s Third Army. While the “Cross of Lorraine” division didn’t take part in the initial landings, it did deploy in France on 12 June.

Several years ago on 6 June I told my grandfather’s story to a navy veteran with whom I work. Since my grandfather didn’t enter the fight on D-Day the man joked, “He had it easy!” Mr. McKeon and his two Purple Hearts would’ve disagreed.

While remembering my grandfather’s war stories I thought it sad so few WWII vets remain. I felt how nice it would be to thank one for his/her service on the 71st anniversary of D-Day. Just then an elderly African-American gentleman entered the café. The man wore a baseball cap with the words WWII Veteran embroidered on the front.

I thanked him for his service. He kindly smiled and shook my hand. “If it wasn’t for the support of people like you, we wouldn’t have made it,” he said.

I speak with a lot of veterans. They’re always very appreciative of the recognition, but this man’s comments really surprised me. I recall my grandfather telling me about the racism in the military during the 1940’s. All Americans know the social climate that existed here prior to the Civil Rights movement. It made me contemplate what kind of homecoming this veteran received upon returning from the war.

I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to thank a World War II veteran today. If you don’t happen to encounter someone who served in that conflict, there are plenty of veterans around. When you see one, please let them know how much you appreciate their service to our country.

Let us never forget: without the support of people like them on 6 June 1944, our freedom wouldn’t have made it.

Thank a Veteran

It’s a time of year where we all enjoy spending time with friends and family. Let’s never forget those who are unable to because of their commitment to defending our country.

I frequent a Starbucks near a local military base. I often encounter men and women in uniform there. Even if I have to go out of my way, I always make a point to express my gratitude for their service. Most politely smile and thank me for my support. I do remember a special encounter I had with a veteran several Christmas seasons ago.

I saw an Air Force captain standing in line with a woman I presumed to be his wife. I walked up to him and said, “Thank you for your service.” His head jolted back. After a brief pause he extended his hand. As I shook it he thanked me. His wife also seemed surprised while she thanked me, as well. This time I was the one who politely smiled back.

I returned to my seat and resumed reading the current edition of Foreign Affairs magazine. (For those who don’t appreciate what our veterans are doing for us, try reading that publication.) Over my shoulder I noticed the captain and his wife sitting at the table across from me. His gaze firmly locked on me. Visions of an unanticipated trip to the Air Force recruiter entered my mind.

I let out a mild sigh of relief as the captain and his wife stood up and walked to the door.  Before leaving he approached me. He extended his hand once more and said, “I just want to tell you how much it means that you thanked me.”  I tried to pshaw the idea, but he was adamant. He’d just completed 90 days in Afghanistan and was home on leave for Christmas. He sincerely appreciated the recognition for his service. It troubled me that it surprised him so much.

Seeing him and his wife reminded me of my own family history. My father, Ed Stephany, Jr., served in Vietnam. He and my mom had only been married three years when he received his draft notice.  They’d just started their new life together. With a new bride at home and a job that had been going very well, Dad dutifully entered the Army. On his very first day in country his bunk mates told him how fortunate he was to be stationed in Nha Trang. “We never get attacked,” they laughed. That night the Tet Offensive began. My father and his unit were shelled several times a week for the next year.

Thank a veteran.

People in my family have served in America’s conflicts going all the way back to the Revolutionary War. I’ve never personally served in the military. I have no illusions as to why my entire generation hasn’t been subject to mandatory military service. The sacrifices of our service people past and present allowed us that luxury. Let us never forget to express our appreciation to those in uniform. We all owe them, their families and friends an immense debt of gratitude. It’s one that we’ll never have the capability to repay. At the very least, especially during this Holiday Season, we can say, “Thank you.”