On Veteran’s Day, a nation pauses to appreciate the service and sacrifice of the men and women who traveled to foreign lands, leaving behind mothers, fathers, siblings, spouses and children to defend a set of common values and fight for a greater cause.
Messages thanking veterans for our American freedom are commonplace during the holiday. But the profound ways in which they have touched the lives of strangers when they’re far from home not only in the moment, but for generations thereafter seem overlooked. For me, their impact only began to resonate when I visited the D-Day memorials in the Normandy region of France.
I went to Normandy to experience the setting of my grandfather’s first World War II battle where, as an 18 year old, he found himself locked in a room in the underbelly of a cruiser, feeding bags of gun powder through a shoot as his ship supported the American troops storming Utah Beach and paratroopers swarming the surrounding countryside while Nazis showered bullets upon them all.
As I stood on the historic sites, walked through the cemetery and read my way through museums, I felt as expected: humbled and moved. But it was at the dining table of my bed and breakfast during a conversation with a Dutch family from the suburbs of Rotterdam, a couple with two daughters close to my boys’ age when the magnitude of the role our veterans play struck.
The husband told me his deep interest in World War II stemmed from a personal connection. At 17, his father was captured by the Nazis and put in a work camp. He was not a well boy, and his health only deteriorated under captivity. American soldiers rescued him. The man told me that if they had come a few days later, his father would not have survived. He went on to say how it never ceased to amaze him that Americans left their lives and traveled across an ocean to save people they didn’t know and from whom they could personally gain nothing.
Just like I had come to pay tribute to a veteran, this husband had used his vacation to drive with his wife and children from the Netherlands to Normandy so together they could also pay tribute to the Americans who saved his father, his country and in his mind, the world.
His is one story, one account of how a small group of soldiers gave a young man life. No doubt, there are countless more about veterans past and present who, as they fought tyranny, oppression, bigotry and fear also touched other humans in positive and lasting ways all over the world. I wish there was a book to house such tales, so we could thumb through its pages when we as individuals or a nation find ourselves moving inward.
In his remarks commemorating the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, Emmanuel Macron, the French President noted, “Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. By putting our own interests first, with no regard for others, we erase the very thing a nation holds dearest and the thing that keeps it alive: its moral values.”
Our veterans are the purest of patriots. They are a group who set aside their individual interests to keep our nation’s moral values alive while remembering to take care of their fellow man along the way regardless of his or her place of origin.
To tout greatness as something only best achieved through self-interest and isolation and to privately disagree but remain silent in public is more than an insult to past leaders, allies and the moral pillars upon which our country was built, it’s a betrayal of every man and woman who ever put their lives at risk to spread hope and uphold liberty.