D-Day + 75 Years: Honoring Omaha and Remembering The Great Crusade

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Christophe—our private guide for the day and local Bayeux native—put a bow on his Omaha talk and slid the photo of a combat medic back into his notebook, closing it as a burst of wind swept over the beach.

The human stories Casey and I had just heard moved me to the core. So many emotions. I could’ve sat there all evening.

I knew, of course, that we couldn’t. We still had more Normandy sites to rapidly squeeze in before our one-day tour ended.

As we headed back to the car, suddenly it hit me.

Casey and Christophe continued ahead while I rolled to a stop and looked back at the water.

Omaha Beach was still at high tide. And the only accessible beach access had been cut off by the rising English Channel.

There was no way for me to ceremoniously touch the Normandy sand like I’d long imagined… Like I’d planned since booking this vacation.

But now, after it hit me, I knew there was another way. High tide or not, I was determined to connect with Omaha and the “Great Crusade”.

The symbolic act of physically touching a piece or place of history—of connecting, literally, with that past—is an important idiosyncrasy of mine. I do not take it lightly. Ever.

“Hold up,” I called out, fighting to be heard over the afternoon’s barrage of wind. “I gotta… The water.”

Another gust came whipping off the Channel, stronger, louder this time. I was practically shouting now.

“The water! I have to at least touch the water!”

Christophe. One of the top tour guides in Normandy.

Christophe. One of the top tour guides in Normandy.

I swung my chair around and pushed back to the top of the boat launch, where Christophe had told his stories.

The slipway had been built into the surrounding wall of boulders lining Omaha, its ramp plunging into the sand.

The gradient was steep with a cemented surface with cut grooves for traction.

I descended carefully, wary of getting my small front wheels caught in any one single rumble strip.

Even if my chair suddenly stopped…didn’t necessarily mean my body would. It happens.

Remembering to take in this heavy moment, I paused halfway to look up and down the beach.

The sun was out. A harmless bank of clouds had settled over the bluffs, and only a modest strip of sand remained above the wind-churned tide. It was a beautiful, crisp autumn day in Normandy, France.

I loosened my grip and kept rolling to where the ramp disappeared below the surf.

I turned and locked my chair perpendicular to the ramp a foot or so into the water.

Alone, I looked around. Silently.

I said a prayer and thanked the men who bravely boarded those landing crafts, sacrificing life and limb for the preservation of good and the perpetuation of freedom.

I thought about the individual soldiers, their lives and what they did…their families back home.

A sense of patriotic pride washed over me.

And for the first time all day, I felt a familiar lump rising in my throat. I was surprised it hadn’t arrived earlier.

At that, I bent forward, reached out beside me, and touched the water.

*   *   *

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Ever since Casey and I were so fortunate to visit Normandy last fall, the lead up to this year’s anniversary of Operations Overlord and Neptune has been at the forefront of my mind. Constantly.

I rolled through the fields. I saw the bunkers and battlements. I experienced the beaches and I touched the water. It’s different for me now.

Because I was there. Because I made that connection…

For some reason, however, I hadn’t been able to verbalize the complex, bitter-sweet feelings of gratitude, reverence, and pure historical awe that I have towards the staggering undertaking of D-Day and the people who made it happen.

I simply couldn’t express what this day and this anniversary means in my heart of hearts as an American. As a student of history.

As someone who wanted to serve my country but can’t.

Every time I tried to create a worthy Instagram caption or blog post for this occasion, I fumbled for direction. Unable to generate a meaningful, lucid explanation conveying the right message and magnitude to pay proper homage.

I just couldn’t find the right words that I feel so obligated to find.

Then I realized something…

Maybe I’m not meant to. 

I’m a wanna-be-veteran who studied history just a liiiiitle bit longer than most. I have a weird fascination for soldiers and war. I’ve read a pile of books most will never come across.

And for years and years I wrote and researched and wrote some more on nothing but military history. On my own accord. Because I wanted to.

A big university even gave me an extra degree for it. Real diploma and everything! 

But I am no authority. I won’t try to be.

I didn’t serve. I’ve never seen combat. I don’t have personal ties to D-Day veterans.

I’m just your typical 33-year-old male history buff whose crazy patriotic with deep respect and appreciation for our military past. 

My opinion—the words I couldn’t find—is irrelevant. My soap-box take on 6 June 1944 and the 75th anniversary is meaningful to, I dunno, like 5 people.

And that’s fine. Not being able to capture the right words is fine.

Because I’m not supposed to. Not today.

The men who were there, who witnessed Hell with their very eyes, own that right. Their visceral recollections should say everything.

*   *   *

The amazingly preserved Longues-sur-Mer Battery

The amazingly preserved Longues-sur-Mer Battery

"Our landing craft hit a mine on its way to Omaha beach. The explosion rocked the craft, killing the men in the front and tossing me and others into the freezing water.

I quickly inflated my lifebelt before the 60lbs of gear sunk me to the bottom. I was in shock and scared to death.

I could not tell which of the other men bobbing in the water was alive or dead.

Luckily, another craft saw me and it slowed long enough for me to grab a rope drooping from the side. 

I clung to the side of the craft with one hand heading once again towards the beach...little I knew that I was hitching a ride into hell.

I let go of the rope about 40 yards from the beach in shallow water. Once there I found a nightmare.  

Sherman tanks burned on the water line and half-sunk landing crafts bobbed in the water, red with blood.

The dead and body parts littered the beach. It was horrible!

Everyone’s screaming for help, everyone’s wounded.

I crawled on my hands and knees up the beach under heavy artillery, mortar, machine gun and sniper fire until I met an Army captain who ordered me to the firing line.  

I pointed at my helmet letting him now that I was a Navy beachmaster. The captain was unimpressed. He simply replied 'Get your ass up there or I’ll blow your head off!'...and so I did.

By the end of the day, only 36 men out of my entire company were still alive."

-Seaman First Class Robert L. Watson (18 years old), B. Company, 6th Naval Beach BN, Normandy, France, June 6th, 1944.

(@ZuluFucxs IG post 6/6/19)

Arromanches — site of the Allies’ Mulberry Harbour

Arromanches — site of the Allies’ Mulberry Harbour

 

"As we approached the beach, the Germans continued spraying our boat with machinegun fire. We went as close as we dared, the ramp went down, and I was the third one out.

I was numb with fear of what I was about to encounter as I often tripped over several dead bodies.

The beach was covered with smoke, flashes of light, rumbling explosions.

Artillery, mortars bursting all around us, bullets whizzing by.

Sand and smoke sprayed upward as the explosions hit the beach. Bodies everywhere! The invasion continued.

The indiscriminate slaughter continued.

I ran as fast as my legs could carry me through the gauntlet of enemy fire. I went through a small opening that had been made in the wire; the path was marked by men who stepped on land mines. 

I managed to reach a bluff with a slight overhang where others were hurdled. We were wet, scared, trapped, all in a state of shock. Nothing was said.

We made room for each other, mirroring our fear, unable to encourage each other.

A Lieutenant made his way towards our little sanctuary of protection.

Gasping for air he said:

'Men, this is Omaha Beach. You are the second wave. For what you've just been through…you men deserve a Purple Heart!'

Pausing for a moment to contemplate, I realized the improbability of my ever going home again."

- Pvt. Benjamin Alvarado, G. Co, 16th Inf, 1st ID, Omaha Beach, Normandy, France.

(@ZuluFucxs IG post 4/29/19)

Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy, France

Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy, France

 

“The entire beach and hillside was covered with obstacles, a unit of Sappers had gone ahead to find where the mines were.

Those guys were smack in the middle of it, German bullets coming down from up top, and our bullets going back the other way, with mortars landing everywhere.

They moved in pairs, if one went down his partner picked up his kit and kept moving.

They didn’t call for a single medic, they just kept crawling up the beach as far as they could until they couldn’t no more.

You could see them pulling themselves up the hillside even after their legs got shattered from the explosions, I remember all their bodies had marker flags sticking out of them.

The dirt was too loose to hold the flags up and the blasts would’ve knocked them over, so the guys had shot themselves up with morphine and stuck the flags into their legs.

When you got to one that was still breathing, he would tell you where it was safe to step.

They were about 25 yards apart. When I got to the base of the hill I took a quick look back and that’s when I saw it.  

Those Sappers had made a trail with their own bodies.

Now how do you not keep going after something like that…."

-Sgt. Gino J. Merli (MOH Recipient) H. Co, 2nd BN, 18th Infantry, 1st ID, Omaha Beach, Normandy, France. 

(@ZuluFucxs IG post 10/17/18)

*   *   *

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Soon voices like these will be gone. It’s our duty to therefore hear what they say now so we can remember what they said later.

In a recent NBC interview with Tom Brokaw to mark this milestone anniversary, Tom Hanks hit the nail on the head, speaking about the legacy of that day and our collective on-going responsibility as a people.

Noting the sad reality that this may be the final major gathering of WWII veterans, Tom Brokaw asked:

“Is there a danger we’ll lose sight of the real meaning?”

Tom Hanks answered, poignantly as ever…as only Capt. John H. Miller can.

“I think the danger is that if it enters into some sort of mythological place where it just becomes a time of gods and heroes…

…If we ever forget that it was a bunch of individuals that went over…and they all had names like Ernie and Buck and Robert…That’s when we’ve done a bad job of being citizens of the world.”

Our responsibility now is to not just remember the big battles and tide-turning events, but to remember the individuals and their stories.

The blurry pictures and grainy footage and names on crosses are sons and brothers and fathers and husbands.

They were young men, people with names like Robert, Benjamin, and Gino.

Our connection to them is key. We have precious little time left with them. 

So if you know a veteran of this war whose story has remained silent, reach out. Talk to them. Get to know them.

Learn their name. Ask questions. And write it down.

Roughly 500,000 WWII veterans are still with us. Their stories, as individuals, must be known.

It’s our responsibility to remember these singular stories about men and women whose lives were as vivid and complex as ours during a time when tyranny, hate, and oppression threatened our world.

So please. If you can…actively strive to make that connection with our sacred past in whatever way you can.

Whether it’s a family member, that neighbor down the street, or a friend of a friend of a friend, be a good citizen of this world and link yourself—tangibly and emotionally—to the past that matters.

Do as I did alone on hallowed ground at the edge of that ramp:

Connect, and remember.

Reach out and touch the water. 

 

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All first person accounts sourced from and credited to the Zero Foxtrot Instagram account @ZuluFucxs

Zero Foxtrot is a U.S. Marine owned and operated business. “We provide unique products that reflect the old school vintage military lifestyle. We strive to honor and highlight the past generation’s warrior culture and all those whose sacrifices and actions tend to be forgotten.” — www.ZeroFoxtrot.com

If you’re like me, their Instagram page is a must-follow.

Living For ‘Championship Moments' (Or, Why I Love American Idol)

Carlos Beltran overcome with tears celebrating with his team. His first World Series after 19 seasons in the big leagues. 2017.

Bob “Bobke” Roll: “Real. Men. Cry!” Announced after a Tour de France stage win, seeing Simon Geshke crying in an interview, who dreamed about this for 15 years. 2015.

Philip Philips unable to continue singing his victory song after winning American Idol because he’s so emotional. 2012.

And me, cheering through tears of joy as I’m mobbed by teammates at 10 years old after hitting my first game-winning walk-off home run in Little League. 1995.

I live for Championship Moments.

I’m a very competitive person… Anyone who knows me will tell you this. I hate losing more than I like winning.

Like most, if not all, of you out there…I have many goals in life.

Some I’ve reached, some I haven’t. And some are quite lofty…but that’s okay. It’s important to set your bar high.

You won’t push yourself if all your goals are low-hanging fruit and easy to achieve. If you do this you’re only selling yourself short.

Either way, you need to be reminded of these goals…you need to be motivated on a regular basis so you don’t forget your purpose…or why you’re doing what you’re doing.

This is precisely why I love “Championship Moments”.

You know exactly what I’m talking about. You’ve all seen them at some point or another on TV or live. It’s simple…

It’s when a team or an individual is crowned Champion.

It’s the moment they’ve emerged victorious. I love seeing it. I’ll even stay up late just to see it in real-time…

That moment when the game is over and confetti rains down… It doesn’t matter what sport…it could be one I don’t care for much…or one I don’t even follow.

Like the 2016 Stanley Cup for example. I didn’t watch one game since the Caps weren’t in it - but I remember staying up to see the final buzzard and the team go crazy when it was finally over.

I do this because I want that same thing. I want what they have. I want that moment… I dream of that moment. And every day I do something to help work towards my own Championship Moment, like the one I had in 1995.

It’s what drives me when times get tough…when adversity strikes…or when the path I think I’m on veers off course.

So having said that, I have a confession to make. Ready? Here goes.

I love American Idol. (Gasp.)

I watch and DVR it every year. Laugh if you must…but it’s true, and I’m not afraid to admit it.

But why do I love American Idol? And more importantly - you’re probably wondering why I’m bringing it up now?

Because American Idol is just like those “Championship Moments” I told you about. The ones I stay up late to see and experience as it’s unfolding.

American Idol inspires me. It keeps me motivated.

Let me clarify something here. I’m talking about the first few weeks, during the live audition episodes, before they go to the Hollywood rounds.

These are the episodes I look forward to and love. I’d love to admit I stop watching once Hollywood Week starts, but by then I’m hooked and can’t stop watching.

But anyways… The point…

The show, for me, is a source of inspiration. It gives me a jolt of motivation twice a week and reminds me of all my lofty goals.

But how?

The American Idol editing team, as I’m sure some of you know, loves to pull at the heart strings. And it works.

Through the magic of production, the show creates Championship Moments each episode.

Again…a Championship Moment is a goal realized.

It’s the culmination of years of training, dreaming, and hard work that has now paid off.

It’s an NCAA hockey team celebrating a championship after the final buzzard goes off… It’s a team of brothers pilling onto each other having just won the World Series…

It’s that singer songwriter who’s struggled for years and is now crying tears of joy and relief because the judges handed them a gold ticket to Hollywood.

Everyday I dream about my goals.

I dream about winning, about representing my country and being the best.

I dream about the day when I’ll uncontrollably sob tears of joy, knowing that all of my hard work and dedication have finally paid off…

Just like that professional multi-millionaire baseball player, that elite cyclist in The Tour, the singer with a one-way ticket to Hollywood who then wins the damn thing, and the 10-year old who hit a walk-off.

That’s why I love American Idol.

If you have a dream, a goal, whatever…short-term or long, big or small…you need a source of inspiration.

You need a constant reminder to keep you going, like I do.

You need your own “American Idol”. You need a Championship Moment. Whatever it may be. Think about it for a minute. Seriously. Really think about it.

What thing, when finally accomplished, will one day make you choke up…

What will make you cry those uncontrollable tears of joy you’ve wanted and worked on now for so, so long?

What is your golden ticket to Hollywood?

What is your Championship Moment?

If you close your eyes, can you see it…? Yes? Good.

Now, what will you do today…tomorrow…and the next day to get there? What will you do right now? What have you NOT done?

We all have our Moments. Yours is no different. But not everyone is willing to suck it up and do what’s necessary to manifest their Moment and make it a reality.

Not everyone is willing to stand in front of judges, bare their soul, and do what’s difficult for a dream…

But then again…not everyone is you.

Step into My SCI: An Exercise (For Able-Bodies)

Murph-Fest 2006. 21st surprise bday. 21 was a bit different than 22.

Murph-Fest 2006. 21st surprise bday. 21 was a bit different than 22.

I’d like to conduct a little exercise with you and test your imagination if that’s okay. I promise it won’t take long.

I want you to imagine something. A scenario. It’ll help if you’re sitting. If you can, please, grab a seat and walk in my wheels for a minute.

But first, I want you to think about your life and everything in it for this to really work. Block out whatever you’re doing and the world around you and think about it all. The highs and lows, the good and the bad.

Take note of the prominent things as well as those tiny details that make up your day-to-day routine.

Consider where you are in that life and how you’re living it, including everything you know, everything you do, and everything you plan to do.

Or, if you’re like me and those glory days of college and life in your early twenties are behind you, go back in time for a second. Go back to your 21-year-old self when you could finally drink (legally) and remember…

Imagine all the same things above plus whatever hopes, dreams, or ambitions you had that you were striving for. 

You with me? Can you see yourself and all you had ahead of you? Or how about the you of today?

Whichever you’ve chosen—both gets you brownie points—I want you to picture them clearly. This is where your imagination gets put to the test…

…because I now want you to envision that all of it—in the blink of an eye—has just been taken away, without a speck of warning.

Everything you’ve known about the life you’ve lived or the one your 21-year-old-self looked forward to, have now vanished alongside those hopes and dreams. Imagine it.

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Imagine being plucked clean from the only existence you’ve ever known, only to be thrown into a new one that’s equal parts scary and unfamiliar.

What would you do if life threw you a change-up and a curve at the same time?

Would you laugh? Would you cry? Would you crumble under the weight of it all as you find yourself back at square one, forced to start life over again? Be honest now.

Or would you rise to the challenge? Would you be grateful simply because you’re not dead?

Your old life is gone and there’s no way of going back. It’s okay to get emotional and then fight. Because it’s all about perspective.

Your new reality has graciously left you the gift of life in exchange for half your body; for that you’re lucky.

But it’s a tough pill to swallow.

For the rest of your forever, running and walking will live only in dreams and memories, as with every other bodily function you and your brain had dominion over south of your top two abdominal muscles (if you’re a T9 like me).

And at 21, being the wizened junior-year veteran of the college weekend that you probably were, that means no longer having the ability to…ya know, hold it.

You can never “not break the seal”. That’s no longer up to you.

The relationship you once had with your bladder is now a thing of the past, along with any predictable regularity you might have had with your…again, shall I say…your interior plumbing. Enjoy.

You now get to schedule your days—your life really—around “getting in the bathroom”. Hurray.

22nd bday. Like I said, little different.

22nd bday. Like I said, little different.

And remember that old saying, how “accidents happen”? Yeah. Get ready for that. You’ll soon care more about proper plumbing than walking. That’s overrated.

It’s the peeing yourself in public that concerns you most. Go easy on the beers.

You have hardware in your back now as well. That’ll take getting use to. The pain. There’ll be plenty of it. Do you know what getting hit in the ribs with a baseball bat feels like? You do now.

And don’t get me started about sex. That’s an entirely separate can of dysfunctional worms.

Starting to see the picture? Getting a better understanding of all the little things people don’t see when they cross paths with one of us wheelchair folk?

And this is just a sliver of shit you’ll have to deal with.

See, it’s not just about the walking. Or handicap parking. Or a surprise set of steps to deal with when the elevator is out. It’s deeper than that. It’s constant. It’s public and private.

But it doesn’t stop there.

If you stood squarely at six feet, you now sit at five. If you talked to people eye-to-eye, you now tilt your head up. Always.

If you liked to blend in, incognito-mode activated, you now draw attention and curiosity like an accident on the freeway.

If your legs were small, they’ll only get smaller. If your arms were small, they’ll only get bigger.

And if tiny daily setbacks or uncontrollable annoyances steered your emotions to the bitter before… you’re in for a rude awakening.

Because happiness, at times, will elude you in this new life where nothing comes easy and putting on pants is a process.

But you’ll love it, I promise.

(I fell out of my chair, to answer your question.)

(I fell out of my chair, to answer your question.)

Perhaps in a sick, twisted kind of way, but you will. Eventually. That happiness won’t elude you forever and you’ll discover that silver-lining.

Here. Start by understanding this: that you won’t be alone.

You’ll meet tons of people like you. Skip long lines because people feel bad. Get attention in crazy new ways. Good and bad.

Crowds will be tough too. Bars, concerts, and frat parties some of the worst. Stick to the edges. Otherwise, speak up if there’s no lead-blocking Moses to part the people.

Tap knees and calves. Most people are tall and oblivious. Or drunk.

If that fails, clip some heels. That’ll get ‘em moving. And if the crowds frustrate you, just remember…you have better parking.

See, it’s not all bad. If you make it so. But it won’t be easy. Adversity never is.

Still, it must be faced to move on, to go forward, advance, grow, and excel…

That’s when you attack. That’s why you attack.

Adversity isn’t something you passively talk your way through all meek-like. You punch it in the mouth, full-tilt.

Because in the sudden new life you now find yourself in, attacking adversity is an everyday thing.

But you’re not out of it yet. You lived. You survived the event that introduced you to your new chair with wheels. Not everyone does. But you did.

Think about what a gift that is.

Think about how this gift pervades every little scenario I’ve taken you through in this exercise. It’s not always easy to see, but the blessing is there.

The fact that your bladder gave way and stained your crotch while day-drinking at that beer garden with everyone is proof—albeit humbling and embarrassing.

But proof nonetheless…that you’re still above ground.

And so. Like that, the old you is gone. You’re now a new, rerouted you.

And this “impossible” scenario you’ve drawn up in your head—of being plucked from your old life and spit out somewhere wholly new—

This, I promise, will be one of the best blessings you never wanted…

Your most fortunate misfortune.

You are now paralyzed. Welcome to our world.