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No Greater Gift

My husband and I had the honor of being in Normandy on the 80th anniversary of D-Day. We were there with a group of 20 alums, family members, and friends from George Washington University. As we visited all the invasion points and heard the courageous stories of these young service members, we continually asked ourselves: What would we do? We paused to consider this question at so many locations. But at the most famous of these, what we specifically asked ourselves was this: Could we, as older teens or young adults, jump out of a Higgins landing craft at low tide and storm Omaha or Utah Beach while under Nazi fire?

We learned that the challenge was more than dodging falling ordnance and raking machine gun fire—it was also a rising tide. You see, one major reason the Allies disembarked on June 6 at low tide was to avoid the underwater obstacles planted by the Nazis to rip the hulls of their boats. These beaches have an impressive 18′ vertical range of tide, and what goes out must come back in—rapidly. This meant that if a soldier was wounded at disembarkation, even if nonfatally, he could drown within 30 minutes, depending on where he fell. So why not just drag all the injured forward?

This question takes me to the memorial to the soldiers of the 29th Infantry Division’s 116th Infantry Regiment. Eighty years ago, this regiment landed on Omaha Beach’s Dog Green sector, where more Americans fell than in any other sector of Omaha Beach. The memorial depicts a soldier valiantly pressing forward while pulling a fallen brother above the tide line. But in doing so, he had to slow down, and this made it more likely that both men would be killed. Some platoons lost almost all of their men. What would you do?

To answer the question requires placing yourself in the situation and understanding the source of your courage. What would force your legs to jump into that cold water and proceed ahead under fire? I was told that it wasn’t a hunger for medals or for vanquishing Nazism. The courage came from the simple desire to do the job, to do what was expected and to be there for your buddies—that same feeling that exists in schoolyards and on playing fields. But here, the situation was life and death. 

The invasion of Normandy was for the liberation of France, but the courage to do so came from the love for the men serving alongside each other. I hear echoes of Jesus, who, while preparing his disciples for his crucifixion and resurrection, said to them, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). I know this passage well, but now, when I read it, the image of the 116th memorial comes straight to my mind.

When we were there, we met a number of D-Day veterans from the United States. I heard there were 250 invited, but only 68 could make the trip again. We shook their hands and expressed how honored we were to meet them, but they always immediately deflected back to us by asking “Where are you from?” However we answered, they always responded, “A great place.” The twinkle in the eyes of these centenarians was continued evidence of the love they hold for others.

I doubt there are any D-Day veterans reading this, so I feel I can safely say that we can’t know what we would have done on Omaha Beach. We weren’t there, so we don’t know what it felt like. But we do know that this day lifts up the fact that acting for others from love gives all of us a special courage from an endless source, and it brings meaning to all of our lives that can never be extinguished. There is no greater gift, and we can know it's always there by the simple twinkle in our eyes.

Mother Nina+


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