NORMANDY - The large crowd of veterans stood out among those invited to the D-Day ceremony at the American cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer yesterday. The event commemorated those killed in the battle of Normandy and the elderly warriors from the invasion, but the audience also included some younger faces of men in the uniforms and hats marking their connection to other wars: a few veterans of the Korean War, veterans from Vietnam, and even some men and women currently stationed in Iraq.
Much was said about Normandy, which spelled the beginning of the end of World War II and a world forever changed. Yet just by their presence, the veterans of later American wars, including the current one, seemed to contradict that perception.
"Of course there's a difference between that war and the Vietnam War in which I fought," said Senior Mast Sgt. Moses Harrell of North Carolina. Dressed in the hat typical of Vietnam War vets, Harrell analyzed what he viewed as the difference between "the war for freedom and universal justice" for whose victims this cemetery was consecrated, and the war in Vietnam in which he himself fought. "Here we did not fight for universal freedom or for justice," he said with a caution worthy of the NATO employee he is today.
Harrell, a 54-year-old Afro-American, also offered a comparison between the condition of blacks in the U.S. army during World War II and today. This delicate issue arises periodically in conversations surrounding the D-Day ceremonies. One Normandy veteran said that in his day, America really had two armies - one white and the other black, but both were commanded by white officers. Asked if there was still racism in the military, Harrell responded with a question: "Is there anywhere in the world without racism?"
Among a row of dignitaries sat Sgt. Bains in her desert camouflage fatigues. As President Bush delivered his speech, Sgt. Bains wiped away a tear, overcome with emotion at thoughts of the past, but also pain for the present. Bains is an Operating Room nurse currently stationed at the U.S. hospital in Germany, which receives the soldiers badly wounded in Iraq. Every major attack in Iraq delivers hoardes of young soldiers to the doorstep of the military O.R. nurse, and their memory alone now brings tears to her eyes.
Relatively few family members came to the cemetery yesterday. There were fresh wreaths on a few graves and small stones left by visitors on Jewish tombstones. A small group gathered at the grave of Brigido Gonzalez. His younger brother Alex and 40-year-old nephew Charles journeyed there from Nevada. They were accompanied by a Frenchman named Francis Bayle, whom they had met a couple of days earlier.
Bayle is a member of the "Flowers for Commemoration" organization and travels here twice a year from Limoge, 450 kilometers away, to place flowers on a stranger's grave. The Gonzalez family located him six months ago and came to the ceremony together.
"My uncle fell in the last just war," said Charles; "That's why I, who grew up with his myth, can be completely proud of my uncle. Not a lot of people can say that nowadays."
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