Seven years ago my wife and I celebrated my 75th birthday with a cruise to Europe. At the port of Le Havre in France, I arranged to tour Normandy, especially Omaha Beach, the site of the U.S. landing on D-Day on June 6, 1944, 68 years ago on Wednesday.

There were about 48 people in the tour group and I would guess about half of us were veterans of various wars. My wife, who is from Russia, decided to stay behind; she had seen enough of the horrors of war.

The day's weather was picture perfect. It was low tide, there was a gentle breeze, and we watched sailboats on wheels race on an almost dry beach. Clouds like huge cotton puffs made the setting idyllic.

Then I looked at the cliffs and saw the German bunkers staring down at us. The tour guide explained that on the day of the invasion it was stormy with strong winds and very rough seas. I was an officer in the Air Force in the Korean War and couldn't imagine what it would have felt like to order men to jump out of a landing craft into a swirling turbulence that could easily lead to their deaths and my own.

Our tour group walked along till we reached a wooden staircase that led to the top of the cliffs and the German bunkers, small concrete-and-steel structures in the ground. I looked out and down at the vista and realized our troops were like the proverbial sitting ducks in a shooting gallery. I didn't pay much attention to the rest of what the guide said. All I could do was stare at the incredibly difficult challenges those soldiers faced. I wondered how they were able to reach the cliffs and scale them to secure those heavily armed bunkers. The tour moved on but my mind could not.

Eventually we reached Colleville-sur-Mer, the American cemetery in Normandy. One of the first memorials we saw was the heroic 22-foot statue "The Spirit of American Youth Rising From the Waves." On almost 200 perfectly tended acres are 9,387 graves of U.S. soldiers.

I walked among the pristine white crosses and Stars of David. I studied the inscriptions. We Americans are such an incredible collection of heritages; the diversity of names was extraordinary.

Then I studied the ages. When I was in the service we tended to take youth for granted. In a sampling of perhaps 30 graves, the oldest person was a captain, age 28.

I stopped looking as the impact of the cemetery sunk in. It was a field of souls, all with unfulfilled dreams and aspirations. Most had probably never married, had children, much less grandchildren, or careers. None would experience the wonders of nearly seven decades since then.

"We have to move on," the guide said. "Can't be late for the ship."

It was a very quiet bus ride back to the cruise liner. As the ship pulled out of the harbor, I looked out the window at a beautiful sunset. I finally stopped thinking about all the things I should have or could have done with my life. Instead I thought about the life I had lived, things I had experienced, and above all else, I was thankful for my family and friends. I realize a long and full life is a journey not granted to all.

Reader Elliott B. Braunstein lives in Great Neck.

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