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Freedom Is Not Free
By Jack DeVine

It was just a vacation – a two-week getaway to take in some springtime scenery in Holland, Belgium and France, along with a few quick stops at spots of historic interest.

We certainly didn’t expect it to be an emotionally draining experience. But that changed.

First was a visit to the site of the WWII battle of Arnhem, in the Netherlands. It was there that more than 10,000 British paratroopers, the forward element of an Allied attempt in September 1944 to carve a direct path into Germany, were trapped deep in enemy-held territory. The attack failed and all but about two thousand were killed or captured.

The battle was made famous by the book and movie "A Bridge Too Far” and is well covered in the history books. But our visit to the Arnhem Oosterbeck War Cemetery, the final resting place of 1,690 of the British and Polish killed in action there, transformed that episode from an interesting history lesson to a deeply personal experience.

The cemetery is serene and contemplative. Lush trees and vegetation surround a vast array of white headstones arranged symmetrically on a field of manicured grass. The whole scene is impressive; but it is when we stepped forward to look at just one of those headstones that we began to grasp its true import.

The very first headstone we came upon, purely by chance, was that marking the grave of one A.L. Mason, identifying him as a "Private in the King’s Own Scottish Borderer’s Airborne”. Private Mason died on September 21st, 1944. He was 19 years old.

I know nothing of Private Mason’s life, of what circumstances conspired for him to be at that time and at that place, in service of his country, risking all to rid the world of the Nazi boot. What I do know, and is now drilled into my brain, is the inscription on his headstone:

"At the rising to the setting of the sun
I think of you, my darling boy. Mother”

Try to multiply that mother’s daily grief by the millions who lost sons to WWII. It’s incomprehensible.

Two days later we were in Amsterdam at the Anne Frank House, now a top tourist attraction. We all know the Anne Frank story, and I’d no doubt that our one-hour walk-through would be sobering and sad. But its physical impact was profound. Being in that place personalized her life and death; for a moment we could share the tiny space where for over two years she and her family hid from the monsters who ultimately succeeded in sending her to her death.

Anne Frank is just one of about six million Jews killed by the Nazis.

And then just a few days later, we visited the magnificent Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, adjacent to the site of the D-Day landings in June 1944. The graves of 10,652 young Americans soldiers and sailors are marked by a sea of crosses (and stars of David) – a visually stunning assembly, but only a small fraction of nearly 400,000 lost in that war.

The day was unseasonably wet, cold and grey – fitting we thought, not unlike June 6, 1944. By chance that morning, a touring chorus from Cornwall England gathered for an impromptu concert. My wife Peggy’s reaction to the soaring voices drifting through that sacred place: heavenly.

The artifacts, photographs and videos on display in the Visitors’ Center were informative; but once again, it was the visceral impact – being there, the sense of physical proximity with individual Americans who left home and family and gave their lives in service to country – that was so deeply moving.

From our getaway vacation, a few takeaway thoughts:
  • The human consequences of war are simply too great to gauge with statistics. The first step in grasping that enormous impact is to personalize it – to connect with an A.L. Mason, an Anne Frank, or an American at Normandy "known but to God”.
  • As Americans, we are relatively isolated from the world’s turmoil, and few of us feel the pain of our military engagements in far away places. It is far too easy for us to lose sight of the fragility of our freedom and security.
Freedom has never been free. The price is steep and is inevitably paid by just a few. There’s never a possibility of a refund for those who give much more than their share. We can only treasure, preserve and protect their precious gift - and never forget its givers, yesterday’s and today’s.


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