A few years ago, I traveled to France visiting the American Cemetery in Normandy on a guided tour. Our French guide was an expert on what we were seeing. A native to the region, she was steeped by her family lore in eyewitness accounts to the events of more than a half a century earlier.
That family background had spurred her to become a tour guide just before the 50th anniversary of D-Day. Her excellent knowledge of English and history convinced her employer, despite her youth, to assign her escort duties for American veterans visiting on that momentous occasion.
She spoke in a tone of reverence about the “older gentlemen” she had taken from place to place. Movingly, she recounted how they pointed here or there and commented how different something appeared compared to when they had seen it as young men.
Someone in our group asked if she had seen the movie “Saving Private Ryan.” “Of course,” she replied. Then came stories of working with the production company and meeting cast members. After the stories, she inquired, “Would you care to see the grave markers of the brothers who are the basis of the story?”
A brisk walk later, I was standing between two white, stone crosses. The name on the crosses wasn’t “Ryan.” It had been changed for the movie, she explained, out of respect for the family’s privacy.
Nevertheless, there really had been four brothers. Indeed, before me were the memorials of two of those brave brothers who fell storming bloody beaches in the name of freedom. Yet another brother had previously been reported “missing, presumed dead” in the Pacific, with a fourth, the youngest, also under arms.
Our guide went on, explaining how the movie plot line diverged from the reality of the four brothers’ story. Rather, it had pulled together bits and pieces of other soldiers’ stories and mixed them together with a “touch” of dramatic license.
Nonetheless, as I stood staring at those white crosses, I considered how much “truth” the movie had actually captured. It portrayed so many of my own feelings from military days, along with much that all veterans have in common.
There is intense pride in country and service, fear of the unknown, abiding camaraderie and loyalty. There are, also, the thrills of meeting difficult challenges, as well as searing pain at the loss of a comrade-in-arms—and the occasional bone-deep exhaustion. All veterans know, too, the sheer relief and profound satisfaction at the end of a grindingly difficult mission.
However, more than anything else, the adage “All gave some, and some gave all” is a binding tie of fierce respect among veterans. Those who leave home and family to go into harm’s way at the bidding of the commander-in-chief deserve no less.
Having lost an uncle in the war at the center of the story in “Saving Private Ryan,” and as a veteran myself, I have a confession to make. I was outraged and deeply embarrassed at my government’s affront to veterans during October’s shutdown.
Never, to my knowledge, in the 17 preceding government shutdowns, have orders been issued to close and barricade an open-air, unmanned war memorial. If the shutdown was about saving money, then why were “essential employees” paid to put up barricades where none have ever been before?
Even worse: during the shutdown, the commander-in-chief chose not to issue an executive order authorizing death benefits due the widows and children of slain veterans. Furthermore, the Senate refused to act on a House bill restoring those benefits. Instead, a private charity was forced to shoulder the burden.
Our warriors slain in battle sacrificed everything they had for their country, and the families they left behind are those who feel the loss most acutely. It is despicably wrong to have these brave patriots and their grieving families used as pawns in a game of domestic power politics.
Has the administration delayed the white crosses as well?
Remember… I certainly will!
John D. Ragan is an Oak Ridge Republican who represents District 33 in the Tennessee General Assembly in Nashville.