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Tim Coyle

Remembering Reagan, and the Heroes of D-Day

As I write this column I’m reminded of a weekend some time ago when – then a lobbyist for homebuilders – I set out to write a regular commentary but was distracted by the news of Ronald Reagan’s death.   Seventeen years have ensued since I heard of the great man’s passing but I remember the moment vividly.

I’m not far now from where I sat that day, watching the ceremony celebrating the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, when the television broadcast was interrupted by the news from Los Angeles. Ronald Reagan was dead. I was initially writing about a growing cultural bias against new housing among state lawmakers (regrettably, little has changed) then immediately shifted gears.

I remember I couldn’t get over the irony of the greatest cheerleader of the fight for freedom in Europe dying just before the day in June when we commemorate the heroics of the men and women who liberated France in 1944. The moment was vastly too great a part of our history for me not to write about it so I kept on writing. I wrote:

As sad as it was, President Reagan’s death fittingly coincided with the remembrance of a signal event in American history. Some said his passing actually drew greater attention to the significance of D-Day which, Reagan reminded us two decades ago, was about how the American ideal of individual freedom and democracy – manifest in the bravery of U.S. soldiers and a nation united behind their campaign – triumphed over the tyranny of Nazi Germany.

Today, we celebrate the 77th anniversary of D-Day and the event’s heroes. Gone from the scene are most of our World War II veterans – including the fabled “boys of Pointe du Hoc” who bravely assaulted the cliffs of the Normandy coast that June morning. (Said President Reagan during a ceremony in France honoring the U.S. Army rangers who fought that day, “[t]hese are the champions who helped free a continent; these are the heroes who helped end a war.”)

The millions of Americans – and all of those from other nations – who fought in World War II are heroes and are to be celebrated and honored. Indeed, we are slowly saying farewell to the greatest generation and the nation owes them its gratitude. As they leave the stage, I wonder if we are adequately thanking them for their dedication and the sacrifices they made to ensure our generation and subsequent ones lived under the banner of freedom.

Are we regularly saluting those of D-Day for their courage and heroics? Are we honoring their silent pledges – to be brave and to do good – as they climbed into hundreds of Douglas airplanes before making the perilous jump in the darkness behind enemy lines? Or, the prayers they made the next morning as they boarded assorted sea craft ahead of storming the beaches of Normandy? Are we remembering the loved ones they left behind – both briefly and forever? Do we pay tribute to those who fell that day as they rest, eternally, far from home?

They were largely young men who fought that day – D-Day – roughly 156,000 of them. They hailed from all walks of life: doctors, lawyers, tradesmen of all kinds, farmers, schoolteachers and more. They came from Brisbane, Cleveland, Brooklyn, London, Toronto, Philadelphia and other faraway places. Though immensely different in their professions and homes, the common love of freedom and the willingness to die for it bound them together.

Ronald Reagan remembered them. He traveled to France during his presidency to pay his respects. At the cemetery at Omaha Beach where thousands of fighting men and women are buried, Reagan said, quoting Abraham Lincoln:

Through their deeds, the dead of battle have spoken more eloquently . . . than any of the living ever could. But, we can only honor them by rededicating ourselves to the cause for which they gave a last full measure of devotion.

Are we passing on to subsequent generations the sturdiness and wide girth of the shoulders upon which we now stand? What are we saying about World War II in school? Do today’s text books adequately tell the story of that part of our history? Of how we, the good guys, toppled the evil and tyranny of Hitler’s Third Reich? And, freed Europe? Do our books and our lectures accurately speak of the critical gateway to victory the courage and commitment of so many D-Day soldiers provided? Do your kids know? Is there an APP for that?

And, although the ranks of World War II veterans are rapidly shrinking, are we as Californians aware that more than 50,000 of these warriors are living with us in this state? I wonder how many live in our neighborhoods.

When Reagan spoke about the G.I.s who invaded Europe June 6, 1944, as he often did, he enjoyed remarking that “they came not as conquerors, but as liberators.” He went on to remind us:

When these troops swept across the French countryside and into the forests of Belgium and Luxembourg, they came not to take but to return what had been wrongly seized. When our forces marched into Germany they came not to prey on a brave and defeated people but to nurture the seeds of democracy among those who yearned to be free again.

Freedom isn’t free – the men and women of D-Day, as combatants in other conflicts, have taught us that. Freedom is composed of will, bravery and sacrifice. And, occasionally we have to take up arms to defend it. That’s what makes America strong. That’s what makes America permanent. That’s what makes America the beacon of liberty throughout the world.

As Americans we have a duty to pass on to the next generation the importance of remembering our past and what we learned from its lessons. As long as there is a breath in my body I will remember . . . and pass it on.