Times were different then. When American WWII Veterans returned home from war, an entire generation of young men and women service-members just wanted to move on with their lives. Scattered across the rural American heartland and into bustling metropolises, many of our vets didn’t reconnect with their comrades until their senior years.
Today, our WWII Veterans are in their nineties and above and many have never told their children or spouses about their experiences in the war. Maybe that’s why, when the Best Defense Foundation offers an opportunity to join an all expenses paid, honorary program to return to their foreign battlefields all these many years later with their brothers in arms, so many Veterans have decided it’s time to finally open up. To tell their stories and relive the history, for these brave souls are the last ones who are able to tell the tale firsthand.
The Best Defense Foundation’s 2019 Return to Normandy program featured sixteen World War II Veterans returning to France for the 75th Commemoration of D-Day. Where all those years ago, on June 6th, 1944, the Allied armies invaded Normandy. Code-named Operation Overlord, it was the single largest seaborne invasion in history. The operation began the liberation of France from Nazi occupation, and laid the foundations of the Allied victory on the Western Front of WWII.
What makes this program so unique is the French people. They filled the streets and squares with heartfelt thanks, tears and introductions to the next generation for our allied veterans. Thousands traveled from across Europe as period-correct re-enactors, portraying American servicemen, complete with restored Willy’s Jeeps and Sherman Tanks. The outpouring of emotion, mixed with the reenactments and small French towns made us feel in moments that we were transported back to 1944, freeing an oppressed people from the long Nazi stranglehold.
As our Veterans returned together, living under the same roof in a twelve bedroom chateau once used by Nazi officers as their comfortable quarters, a brotherhood was forged. There, in these moments the stories, jokes, friendly insults and nicknames started flying like old times in the barracks. In other moments, the mood turned more somber as places became familiar and the hard past came rushing back into the present. But for these times too, the veterans were standing tall with their brothers and sisters, allowing the emotions to come over them, to grieve their lost comrades and to let themselves bring closure to that part of their lives, all these many years later.
The program came to a finale when these American Veterans came together on June 6, 2019 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of that fateful day; that day which changed the lives of so many, D-Day June 6, 1944. Joined by the American and French Presidents and many other Heads of State – our veterans were honored on the global stage, in front of tens of thousands of people and seen by millions more. At the Omaha Beach Memorial at Colleville-Sur-Mer American Cemetery, POTUS honored PFC Russell Pickett, a first wave Omaha Beach D-Day Veteran.
“Russell Pickett of Co. A 1st Bn, 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Division. Today, believe it or not, he has returned, once more, to these shores, to be with his comrades.”
Shaking hands with both Presidents and First Ladies, this was a special moment of honor for our deserving veterans.
After eleven days of these moments, eleven days of goosebumps, laughs, handshakes and trying to hold back tears, our Normandy 2019 program had reached its conclusion. To help protect these memories, the BDF used Pelican Cases to create Memento Kits. These kits were personalized for each Veteran to feature their photo, a signed thank you card from the BDF staff, their service branch/division patch, a 75th Commemorative D-Day Coin and enamel pins from our partners including United Airlines and the National Football League. Each kit also included limited edition Oakley sunglasses featuring the invasion map of Omaha beach printed on the frame and wipe cloth.
The foundation’s Executive Director and former NFL player, Donnie Edwards while surrounded by our Veterans, fighting back the emotions payed tribute to former NFL Player James L. Mooney, who left the league to to serve, and give the ultimate sacrifice in August of 1944, “To bring you guys back here, is such a blessing and such an honor. It means a lot, I’m glad you guys are here. Without the game of football, I would never have this opportunity, this platform, to do what I’m doing. To bring all you guys back here, to be together with your brothers. All you guys were here during the war together, you guys know what it’s about to be part of a team, to be part of a brotherhood. Because of you guys we can live in this country, free!”
As our heroes return to their hometowns, our hearts are warmed, but our work is not finished. The Best Defense Foundation next sets their sights on veterans returning to Belgium and Holland for the 75th Anniversary of The Battle of the Bulge and Operation Market Garden.
To make it possible for a veteran to return to his battlefield, join us in supporting the Best Defense Foundation’s mission for these and future programs by giving at their donation page: www.BestDefenseFoundation.org/donate