By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
June 6, 2010 - The military's top officer thanked the D-Day veterans of World War II for their service here today, and asked them to reach out to those who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan to share their common experiences.
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made the connection between the 29th Infantry Division soldiers who stormed the beaches at Normandy, France, and today's servicemembers fighting battles in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Mullen called June 6, 1944 a defining moment in human history. "The significance, the cost, and, most of all, the sheer bravery of Americans and allies who pushed forward on June 6th taught us what we were of, and what we have to keep striving for," he said.
Bedford, at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, suffered the greatest loss per capita of any town in America on D-Day. The town lost 19 men killed from A Company 116th Infantry. Bedford had 3,200 inhabitants in 1944. All were touched by the loss of their sons who enlisted together in the National Guard.
The Bedford Boys represented America's best ideals, the chairman said. "Ordinary people who did extraordinary things: Fighting for something greater than themselves; fighting for each other; fighting for us," he said.
Today, there are more than 200,000 Americans deployed in harm's way. These represent American's next "Great Generation," Mullen said, including Bedford's own Army Sgt. Gordon Musgrove, a volunteer fireman serving in Iraq.
"Young people who once again willingly put their lives, their dreams, their families on the line to protect ours," Mullen said.
That those common sacrifices haven't changed over time wasn't lost on the veterans and soldiers here. "You see a bunch of old men. But once, we were just like them," said a D-Day veteran pointing to a group of 29th Infantry Division soldiers.
One Bedford Boy, Lt. Elisha Ray Nance, was wounded on Omaha Beach, but recovered and returned home. He said he felt guilty when he encountered people who had lost relatives in Normandy.
"Such survivor's guilt, they say, is normal, and yet Ray never really got over it," Mullen said. "He never really forgot that for many of those who make it and for those whose loved ones never do, the war lives on."
Nance died in April 2009, "but today, a new generation returns to us with wounds both visible and invisible," Mullen said. "Our young troops and their families today still want the same things they looked forward to when they left – a job, an education, a home and a better life for their children."
The nation must take care of these servicemembers, the chairman said, and reach out to them "so they do not suffer in quiet desperation.
"I ask everyone here today – all Americans, really, but especially those of you who have known the anguish of war – to renew your commitment to our veterans past and present, particularly our wounded and the families of the fallen," he said.
The greatest tribute Americans can pay to the fallen and to the missing from every generation "is not only to hold ceremonies and erect monuments, but to look after their families and embrace their brothers and sisters-in-arms when they return," he said. Normandy has another legacy for Americans. "There was no retreat for any man on D-Day," Mullen said. "Each just had to push on."
More than 2,500 Americans were killed on the first day of Operation Overlord alone and many more remain missing in action. It was almost more than the country could bear. Yet Bedford and the rest of America soldiered on, he said.
"Today's wars will not involve a single day like the sixth of June or end with victory parades," Mullen said. "And yet like the Bedford Boys, we, our allies and our partners must keep moving forward, even when we are crawling. We must always fight for the best ideals of our nation, though our tasks be not easy. We must take risks and keep pushing ahead."
There were about 50 D-Day veterans from the Army, Navy and Army Air Forces at the memorial. They are in their 80s and 90s now, but still bear witness to the sacrifices of a generation. The 29th Infantry Division is still a National Guard unit from Virginia and Maryland and the grandsons and granddaughters of those who fought in Normandy are now in its ranks.
This year will be the last reunion of the Blue and the Gray Division soldiers from World War II, Mullen noted. "It's important we recognize these men, and it's important that we pay tribute to them," he said after the ceremony.
"It's also important to make the connection to what they did and the current sacrifices," he said. "In this job, I've found that it has grown over time in the importance of the connection between generations that fought for the country and the commonality of experience, the ability to support and the extent of the sacrifice."