I live near the National Guard armory, and have passed it almost daily for 50 years, either driving or walking. But since my trip to France this summer, the Jeeps and trucks are no longer just a mass of Army vehicles. They are symbols, reminders of our current readiness and our past sacrifices.

I should have always been revering this spot in our town, but mostly I was hurrying to work. Now my awareness has been inflamed.

Our trip to France was a learning vacation, anchored by a pilgrimage to Normandy. My friend Janie’s father, Harry Ridgeway, had served a significant role in the fight against the Nazis and she wanted to see as many of the battle sites as she could. I have a cousin buried at the American Cemetery.

Yes, we shopped in Paris and photographed the Eiffel Tower. But we also attended lectures, watched films and marveled in museums.

The days I spent among the French were life-changing/attitude-changing. The French value politeness, beauty, art, food and joy above efficiency. To the French, many things are worth the time to be spent in doing it right.

And they are passionate about their history.

The French will never forget World War II because there are memorials and gardens everywhere. We met many who still see Americans as liberating heroes. One man told me, “You Americans have it all wrong. It was not a D-day invasion. The Nazis invaded my homeland. The Americans drove away the invaders. Call it the D-Day Landings or Operation Overlord.”

My personal understanding of World War II was deepened and my admiration for the soldiers was intensified by standing on Omaha Beach and peering over the windy cliffs of Pont du Hoc. The training and discipline of the rangers who climbed those heights and the men who fought on the beaches was amazing.

The Caen Peace Museum was even more moving because the displays, videos, pictures, letters and recordings revealed more stories of suffering, discipline and heroism — in the very words of the soldiers, leaders and victims themselves. The films and maps and military displays at the Caen museum made it frighteningly clear to me how close we came to losing our freedom, our very humanity, to the evil that was Nazism. How much we owe to our military in all capacities.

The museum included a Holocaust section, but also sections on the Polish, Slavic and French resistance movements. I had forgotten that in addition to Jews and Poles and weak or disabled people, the Nazis were out to kill blacks and Roma Gypsies, Hungarians, etc., anyone who wasn’t Aryan. The photos and artifacts were heartbreaking and there were moments when I cowardly turned away.

Visiting the American World War II Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer was several hours of spiritual enlightenment and connection. It is beautiful and peaceful, green and orderly. A place made sacred by the men and women who are buried there.

It is a place where we can honor so many truly good men and women, where saints and angels whisper on the breeze in the silence of our awe.

We tend to forget that Operation Overlord went from June 6 until Aug. 25 when the Allies liberated Paris. Men and women continued to die in many critical battles after D-Day.

My cousin, James Brunnell McDaniel, was killed in action on June 17 while fighting the Germans in the Bocage region. He is resting in the American Cemetery near Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy, France, above the cliffs above Omaha Beach, alongside the remains of 9,387 American military dead. And this is not the only American military cemetery in the world.

A very nice Army general whom we traveled with in France gave me a small flag to place on my cousin’s grave, to honor his dedication to duty despite his fears. He knew the importance of his work.

The large wall maps at the cemetery traced the routes of the different Allied divisions who pushed the Germans back, who drove their Jeeps through mud, who hacked their way through hedgerows. We traced the roads and battles of Harry Ridgeway, from his landing on Omaha Beach until his triumphant ride down the Champs-Élysées.

On the day we visited the cemetery, we also learned that there are plaques and places reserved in a circular wall for those who are still missing. And there are way too many of them.

The city of Jackson will host its annual Veterans Day ceremony at 10 a.m. Nov. 9 in the city’s Veterans Memorial Park. The planned program is impressive and interesting. I will learn from the speakers. I will show my gratitude to those who daily protect our democracy by being there. I am sure I will cry when Kelly McCord reads the names on the casualty wall.

But may I also suggest that you consider putting a trip to Normandy on your bucket list?

I will go with you. There is much more for me learn and understand.

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Columnist Cheryl Hilderbrand is a former educator and a member of the Jackson-Butts County Library Board of Trustees. Email her at cherrylmach@gmail.com.

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