On this Memorial Day, Americans will pay tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice. While they never made it home, the 218,000 Americans buried overseas will not be forgotten.
Events to honor fallen soldiers will include a tribute to the 4,410 buried at Brittany American Cemetery in France. This picturesque farm country may be peaceful now, but this landscape was a much different scene for the soldiers who lost their lives in the Normandy and Brittany campaigns of 1944.
I’ve had a home within walking distance of this cemetery for the past decade. Hearing the stories, knowing my own family’s World War II history, and understanding firsthand the impact this event had on an entire generation is why I am so passionate about supporting military families and veterans.
In 2002, my mother and I visited the Brittany American Cemetery. As we were looking out over the nearly 5,000 soldiers who are buried there, we spent a lot of time talking about my own father, Seymour Milstein, who was based in England and served as a sergeant in an anti-aircraft division during the war. At that time, my parents weren’t married but had known each other since they were teenagers in New York.
When my father enlisted, he and my mother made a conscious decision not to get married until after the war because they had witnessed the pain that several of their widowed friends had gone through. The first thing my father did when he boarded the Ile de France to travel across the Atlantic Ocean was toss the photo of my mother that she had given him into the sea because he didn’t want to be distracted, it was too painful, and he had a war to fight.
My father was not injured in the war but was hospitalized for surgery while he was abroad. He was taken to a veteran’s hospital in Scotland. Hospital planes were starting to bring soldiers back to the U.S. — the first plane that left went down and they never found any of the soldiers. He was on the second plane out. All the other soldiers on his plane signed a dollar bill that he carried in his wallet until the day he died. When he passed in 2001, my mother and I were given his wallet and the signed dollar bill was still in there, a small symbol accompanied by many memories of that difficult experience he carried with him for his entire life.
I feel so strongly about taking care of our veterans and will work every day for the rest of my life to ensure they are given the respect they deserve. In the days of World War II, almost everyone was a veteran. Now, we’re still fighting for our liberty, it’s just a different kind of war. The number of individuals who serve today is much smaller by comparison but that is why it’s even more important to thank them every day for their service. And we have to help them get the treatments and rehabilitation and support they need to return to civilian life. They deserve everything we can give them and more. Whether or not you have a personal connection, everyone needs to be aware of their sacrifice and we all need to do something about it.
On this Memorial Day, I will once again pay tribute at the Brittany American Ceremony as I do every year. The cemetery is impeccable and beautifully maintained, as it should be. I always stop and visit the small chapel at the entrance that shows where the various divisions were located during combat.
Visiting the memorial is bittersweet because a lot of French people were also killed during the bombings. Good, honest French people were killed alongside the Germans, who are also memorialized nearby in a necropolis. At that point in the war, the Germans were down to the last of their reserves and many of the soldiers were young men — teenagers — or men in their mid to late 40s.
While other parts of the world may have moved on and forgotten about the sacrifices made during World War II, the memories are still very alive in this region of France. Our small village flies American, British, French and Canadian flags throughout town. On Memorial Day, a dedication will take place and 1,500 school children will place flowers on graves. There will also be a fly by to honor the fallen.
It warms my heart to witness these tributes every year, and to know that for this year’s 70th Anniversary of D-Day, hundreds of thousands of people will visit Normandy for the ceremonies. They have not forgotten what was lost — and what was gained. This anniversary is so important, particularly in light of the challenges we face in the world today. We continue to fight for our freedom and should never take it for granted. We also must continue to take care of our veterans and never forget what they sacrificed.