This Friday is the 70th anniversary of D-Day. Only recently when I went to Normandy did I fully grasp its significance. The battle between Allied and German forces on the beaches of France was the turning point of World War II and the eventual liberation of the world from the evil of the time.
My first impressions of war were formed when I was growing up on Long Island and honoring veterans in the early 1960s. When I was in grade school, my parents were avid members of American Legion Post 1014 in Franklin Square. We'd march as a family, my brother and I with my parents, in Memorial Day parades. At the war memorial opposite Rath Park, members of the community would say prayers and hear 21-gun salutes by men in uniform.
I didn't quite understand the frenzy of the adults, but the stories of sacrifice and ultimate price paid sounded very sad.
During my college years in the late 1960s, I photographed protests against the Vietnam War at Nassau Community College for the school paper, The Vignette.
A photograph I took made front page and drew a complaint from the college president. It showed a student holding up an anti-war sign with an obscene gesture. That war became personal when the draft-lottery number of my boyfriend (and husband-to-be) nearly got him inducted into the Army.
I spoke on ABC Radio against the war, whose mission I and millions didn't understand. Nevertheless, the war's purpose, which eluded many, didn't diminish the sacrifices and ruined lives of our soldiers who fought there. Today Vietnam is a desired tourist spot. I know of some Vietnam War veterans who returned there to make peace with those they fought. How cathartic and how ironic.
I didn't fully understand the impact of war until I recently walked on the sand of Omaha Beach on a quiet, sunny day in Normandy. I tried imagining the carnage and horror of the morning of the invasion on June 6, 1944. Tens of thousands of troops from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, free France and Norway invaded. Some 4,400 Allied troops were killed, and 4,000 to 9,000 Germans.
We walked among the German bunkers and craters left in the earth and cliffs, and we saw panoramas of the other invasion beaches where battles raged. I was surprised that our troops were allowed to be in plain sight of enemy gunfire when they hit Omaha Beach.
While in Normandy, I visited the American Cemetery with my husband and took part in a ceremony there. Vietnam and Korean War veterans in our tour group were asked to stand and be recognized. We sang "The Star Spangled Banner" and heard gun salutes like those I heard as a young girl in Franklin Square.
My husband and I laid roses at a wall inscribed with the names of soldiers whose remains were never found. We found two names ending in Schramm. Although we are certain they are not relatives, World War II somehow seemed more personal.
We also saw war museums in Belgium and in Luxembourg, where Gen. George Patton is buried. We found out later that one of his nieces was in our tour group. Outside of Luxembourg, the guide stopped the bus at a Nazi cemetery of young boys, no more than 14 or 15 -- much to the displeasure of a Jewish couple on the trip. I saw the name Schramm on one of the graves but stayed silent out of respect for the couple.
After visiting Normandy -- and realizing how far I've come in understanding history since my childhood on Long Island -- I can't look at a war documentary or recall the moments over there without crying. Seeing all those white crosses -- thousands of them concentrated in one place -- has that effect on me every time.
St. Augustine said the purpose of war is to find peace -- another of life's paradoxes.