They fed you a big breakfast that morning, knowing it could easily be your last. Eggs, sausage, steak, coffee, doughnuts…the best of the American bounty that you were charged with protecting. Your rucksack is heavy. You’re tired in spite of the three cups of black coffee you gulped down on deck. The sea was supposed to be calmer than it is, tossing you up and down, but you know your stomach would be upside down even with clear sailing.No one wants to acknowledge the truth: many of you won’t be coming back. After Rommel discovered the porous nature of the Atlantic Wall, he persuaded Hitler to fast-track improvements. More pillboxes. More artillery. More machine guns. Your COs didn’t lie to you. They told you that your job is to do your damnedest to get toehold on the continent, no matter the cost to you or the buddy running beside you in the sand.
You try to close your eyes and steal a peaceful moment, but the sun is rising and the Normandy shore is getting closer by the second. You wonder what the Krauts in the pillboxes are thinking; one guy on watch playing solitaire–the game is interrupted as he realizes the hundreds of ships on the horizon aren’t an optical illusion.
There isn’t much left to double-check; you did that on the ship. Boots laced. Helmet tightened, not that it could stop a bullet from the German guns. Letter from your mother in plastic at the bottom of your pack. You can see the Czech hedgehogs, the dragon’s teeth on the beach inviting you to enter the gaping maw of Hell.
Johnson, the guy next to you, is usually a real joker. No one and nothing off-limits including the girls back home you all hoped weren’t making time with some 4F who didn’t give his body, heart and soul to Uncle Sam after that day which will live in infamy. No, Johnson’s as quiet as everything else. All you can hear is the crashing of waves against flat bows and the rumbling of countless motors.
A couple hours ago, you figured, you had an out. Storming the beach was just a choice and you could easily avoid Omaha Beach. Go AWOL and let the US military deal with you instead of the Germans. Seriously, what’s more frightening? Hitler and his Hugo Boss death’s head brigade or the disappointment on your father’s face and the tears in your mother’s eyes as they visit you in Leavenworth? Running away was never an option, but considering doing so was perfectly natural.
The only way out now is into the water. Everyone’s tense, even Fothergill: a man built to wage war. He never seemed to sweat in Basic, never found himself out of breath, never looked like walking death during the fifteen mile humps in some godforsaken corner of a state we’d never seen before the bus dumped us on the steps of our new home. Fothergill, with will of steel and muscles of iron, is scared. You’re scared, too.
You hear an odd sound, like the ping of a hailstone on a tin roof. You know what it is: a round from the German machine guns, but the truth doesn’t register. Nothing does. Fothergill bends over beside you and vomits as everything slows. You took Betty Springwater to a movie once, the greatest day of your old life. She took your hand and sat in the balcony with you and that was the first time you truly understood how man and woman can fit together perfectly, like hand in glove. The projector malfunctioned in the middle of the picture and Mickey Rooney started slurring his words and walking in quicksand, but you didn’t care because Betty Springwater was beside you. Things are even slower now as shells hit the water around you, shooting geysers into the air.
The door drops and Johnson gets one right between the eyes. His blood spatters on your hand, but you can’t think of anything but getawaymustgetoutmustgetaway as your legs spring you over the side of the landing craft without consulting your brain first. Your pack, now waterlogged, is heavy as hell, just another burden. But you tread until you can crawl, feeling the European sand between your frozen fingers.
There’s no cover aside from the bodies wedged under the hedgehogs, sometimes two or three deep. You know that it’s not fair to ask those men, alive or not, to let you burrow behind them, so you run, your rifle forgotten, as though you could hit one of the Germans in their pillboxes anyway. The tide, stained incarnadine, laps at your feet as you run, praying to a god you’re not sure exists at this moment. You’re not sure if you just stamped a piece of helmet into the sand or a man’s hand.
You’re accustomed to the feeling of the breeze on your skin, but not a wind whipping at supersonic speed, whistling past your ears like mosquitoes the size of an elephant. You run.
They told you it was a thousand feet of sand, but it feels like a million. They told you there would be mines, but nothing could prepare you for the shock of hearing an explosive footfall fifty feet to your right. By the time you reach the dunes. You scamper as high as you can, falling with your back flat against the dirt and rock. You’re in the machine guns’ blind spot, but the artillery could hit you at any time, tough luck kid. Game over. All you want is a moment of rest, just thirty seconds. You look back at the Channel, all of the landing ships, all of the bodies melting into the sand, all of the men doing their best Jesse Owens impression to find a place close to where you are.
You’ve just made it through the hardest moments of your life, and it’s not over yet. But you’re alive. You endured. You now believe that you can overcome anything.
Sadly, human nature dictates that there will always be a next battle. Brave men and women will put their lives on the line to maintain peace, plenty and freedom back home. If nothing else, we must honor their contribution by taking time to put their struggles in perspective with respect to ours from time to time. Even those–such as myself–who don’t have what it takes to fight must aspire to the courage and inner strength of a good soldier.
We must resist those who seek to infantilize society and those who are trying to make life a safe space in which one’s mettle is never tested and in which all forms of weakness are instantly accepted instead of judiciously challenged.
A “safe space” is a cocoon of delusion and a “trigger warning” is an admission of emotional immaturity.