ST.-LAURENT-SUR-MER, France - It was a day of images memorable and grand. Booming 21-howitzer salutes, roaring fighter jets, shimmering views across a calm English Channel. It was a day of grand themes in small details: the glint of sunlight on wheelchairs, the tears in the eyes of old men, the neatness of medals in rows. And June 6, 2004, the 60th anniversary of the Allied invasion of occupied Europe, was a day of passing on.
In his address, President Bush recounted the tales of men crying "Mother" and "God help me" as they died to promote freedom. Their stories must be passed along, he said, from generation to generation.
And an hour after Bush finished his remarks, a younger soldier based in Catonsville eased a disabled D-Day veteran toward his waiting bus, tears filling her eyes. The way Spc. Tanya Peck, a member of the 729th Support Battalion of the 29th Infantry Division, cared for George Roberts Jr. yesterday epitomized the way the finest soldiers make an art of honoring the past.
Not long ago, Peck, 27, became one of 91 members of the storied 29th Infantry chosen for the select mission of attending the 60th-anniversary festivities. She qualified, in part, by being named soldier of the year in her unit, an honor bestowed for her leadership traits. Her task: to spend time with some of the 29ers who had gone ashore on D-Day and survived to tell the tale; to help them get around during their hectic time in Normandy, and to soak up as much knowledge as she could. That way, the stories of men not long for this world will be shared before they are forever lost.
Peck, a native of upstate New York, arrived during a whirlwind, sleepless 24 hours that started at Fort Belvoir in Northern Virginia and ended at a U.S. Army camp on Utah Beach, just a few miles west of Omaha Beach, where she met young 29ers from around the country. Though she only arrived in northern France on Thursday, she said the experience has changed her.
"I had read about D-Day, of course," she said, "but to see the sites in person and hear the tales of what these men did is truly astonishing. I can say for sure I'm a better soldier now."
The change took root almost immediately. A D-Day historian took Peck and her comrades to several historic sites and told them what happened there. On one of the beaches, she observed a moment that felt like alchemy.
One old-time 29er told her he'd been part of a unit that subdued 35 Germans on Omaha Beach one by one, commandeered their artillery and began using it by nightfall. A woman nearby, hearing the story, realized that her late husband had been in this man's regiment. She had brought his ashes to bury here. A third man, once a member of the French Underground, had tutored men from the same unit before their landing at Omaha.
"I saw how the links are made," Peck said. "I saw how the things you do today have results in the future. Those people all hugged, and in those few minutes, they bonded. I guess that's how history is made."
And somehow, that creates even more history. At 6:30 yesterday morning, Peck stood with her 90 comrades as the sun rose over brightening water at Omaha Beach, 60 years to the minute after the men she has been getting to know were among the thousands who, in her words, "faced odds I can't even fathom, right into the teeth of German resistance, and saw their friends killed, and just kept coming. That's soldiering."
Without prompting, with no veterans present, and evidently without caring whether they were being watched or not, the young 29ers did something few soldiers enjoy: They lined up in parade formation. They had saved for this moment a ceremony for one of their own. A sergeant had decided to re-enlist, did so right there, and to wild applause on the otherwise quiet beach, the same one the 29th Division helped to storm and to capture, received an immediate promotion to staff sergeant.
Peck was awed.
That's what happens when you choose to embrace tradition, and deepen it.
"I always knew the 29th Division landed at Normandy, that it was formed from forces that had fought against each other in the Civil War, but meeting these men and seeing where they fought and hearing what they actually did, from their own mouths - well, it connects everything together. It's like links in a chain."
The single mother of Kyle, a 5-year-old boy, Peck sees both the 729th, and the 29th Division of which it is a part, as family. That's something she takes profoundly to heart. She hasn't merely gathered up D-Day stories to tell back at the Catonsville Armory, incredible as those are. She'll also bridge the small and the large herself when she scoops up some sand from these historic Normandy beaches to take back to her grandfather, a veteran of the European theater who lives near the town where she grew up.
"It's a little thing," she said, her voice quavering a bit, as many people's do when they come to visit Normandy, "but to him it won't be such a little thing. It will give us something even more in common. And that's soldiering."