The Henri-Chappelle American Cemetery in Belgium represented the resting place of 7,992 American heroes, most of whom were barely teenagers. Once we internalized the magnitude of solemnness at this place, we were informed that this is only one of fourteen cemeteries of the fallen American soldiers in the Second World War. The burden tripled when we were informed that two-thirds of the bodies were sent home following the war. This massive resting ground that stretched almost as far as the eye could see was only a very small fraction of what the war stripped from us as a nation. These were human beings. People who each had a story, each had a family, and each had a future. My soul so desperately desired to blame an individual, a group, a country. Consequently, the more I blamed Adolf Hitler, the more I despised the Nazis, and the more I misinterpreted Germany, the more I realized this war was an epic struggle between good and evil. Then I understood that these men died with a purpose more meaningful that any one individual could ever imagine. Their deaths paid the price of liberation. The wonderful freedom we so earnestly enjoy today was paid for by the very lives of these warriors. To call ourselves privileged to be in the company of the soldiers who escaped death seventy years ago is an understatement.
Henri-Chappelle was the third cemetery we visited. Each visit removed a fog of insensibility that blocked the sheer weight that lay just beneath the surface of these graveyards. The glassy eyes of our Veterans quietly gazed at their comrades, their friends, their brothers. Then it hit us. An intensity of emotion fell upon us all as the ceremony progressed for Dr. Mullinax’s cousin. A picture framed the youth of a soldier who was just a boy. Younger than all of us on the tour, he was the price of freedom. Etched in gold inside the chapel where the words: “Oh Lord, Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil and to make no peace with oppression.”
In a muddle of joy and melancholy, we said our farewells around the dinner table. Our families, homes and warm beds awaited us the next day back in the United States; yet, a burden of yearning had already begun to set in as the time of departure from these incredible heroes approached. The last two weeks was a time that a group grew in togetherness despite its differences; a group so diverse that neither state, nor generation could contain us. Yet all fifteen of us students walked away with eight new grandpas.
The next morning was a rush to the airport and a long flight home. At Atlanta we waved goodbye and share quick hugs as we rushed to our respective connecting flights. The trip that a few days ago had felt so long was now over so fast. But the lessons we had learned were just beginning to take hold. I believe I will continue to learn from these men I have been blessed to meet for years to come.
We are a chain in history. These men’s stories will never be forgotten, and the joy of accompanying these men will always be remembered. Only a prophet could have predicted the wisdom, emotion and experiences we all encountered on this tour. And our lives as individuals will never be the same, or as one Veteran said: “Don’t ever be afraid of anything, forget about giving up, and keep on laughing.”