June 6, 2024, marks the 80th anniversary of D-Day, the historic day when Allied forces landed in northern France, beginning the successful liberation of Europe from Nazi Germany. I had the honor of attending the 75th anniversary of D-Day and was profoundly moved by the experience.

In the small villages and towns along the coast of Normandy, it seemed as though more American flags waved than in any corner of America. These flags hung from windows, roofs, and doors, adorned flower pots and window planters, and decorated cars and buildings. The American flag’s red, white, and blue mirrored the French flag’s colors, symbolizing a deep connection between our nations.

When you speak with the locals, they share stories of their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents who lived through the occupation and then the liberation. Some speak with halting emotion about their own memories, recalling the American soldiers who poured through their beautiful countryside, proclaiming, “I’m an American, I’m here to help.”

These French men and women possess a profound understanding of the sacrifices made by American soldiers. They know about the glider riders, paratroopers, grunts, and GIs. They speak of the 29th Division, the 1st, the 82nd, the 101st, and so many others.

In homage, they restore old American jeeps and military vehicles that once littered the countryside in the aftermath of the war. Some don authentic U.S. uniforms, while others wear reenactment versions, spending an entire week visiting the sites consecrated by the sacrifices of American soldiers. This goes beyond historical reenactment; it is a deep acknowledgment that their freedom is tied to America and a heartfelt way of giving thanks.

Unapologetic in their reverence, they wear our patches and wave our flags—a vivid reminder of our nation’s promise. Shockingly, it is the French youth who keep the American memory and myth alive. 

In Normandy, for a time in modern-day June, our soldiers seem to be reborn, reliving the glory of their youth. The French adopt our uniforms and the dreams of our country. They stand in eerie, ghostly assemblages across the beachheads, towns, and fields, prompting us to reflect on what might have been and what was.

Among them stand active-duty American soldiers—paratroopers and Rangers—flown in to honor their units’ lineage and connect the past to the present. They are showered with praise and gratitude. Watching the French honor our modern military men, it’s easy to remember the boys from the boats and planes of yesteryear, who brought with them the hope of the world, the American spirit of perseverance, and a desperate love of freedom. They were not perfect men, but they were perfect for that day.

Against all odds, they succeeded. It is not enough to see it in the movies or in pictures. You must walk the deep, soft sand of the beach that is difficult to traverse unencumbered and unopposed. You must spend a moment in the French countryside where the night is so dark, you cannot see a friend to your right, let alone an enemy to your left. You must feel the ocean water that, even in June, is so cold it stings and turns your hands and feet clumsy. You must touch the jagged cliff edges and rocks whose sharp edges cut and bite into an even gentle grasp. You must attempt to penetrate the bocage, the hedgerows, only to realize the futility of the effort.

We must bear witness to the intrepidness of America before it’s too late.

Even now, as I write this, in too many corners of America, we are failing them. We take our freedom for granted because it’s never been threatened by an outside force, failing to realize the greatest threat is, perhaps, ourselves.

We do not teach enough history in our schools. Most children do not even know of D-Day, let alone that in the first wave onto “Bloody Omaha” was a National Guard infantry division whose patch is blue and gray, symbolizing the unification of the North and South after the Civil War.

Boys from Pennsylvania and Virginia, enemies a few generations before, fought, bled, and died together in a country thousands of miles from home for a people they did not know. That is the will, the heart, the hope of America.

Tragically, we’ve become ever apologetic for who we were and are in the hopes of healing. We highlight our fractures and mistakes, believing it to be the best path to reconciliation, overlooking that perhaps it is our victories that might teach us best. It is the heroic efforts of good men and women that inspire and bring forth change.

On my last night in France, five years ago, I saw a young French boy in a K-pot helmet, wearing an old GI uniform. The helmet was just a little too big and dipped over one eye. He put his hands up for a fist bump every time an American paratrooper or Army Ranger walked by. With each connection, his smile grew wider, and his eyes a little wetter. Someone gave him a pin, another a unit patch, yet another, a sticker. Before long, I found myself with tears in my eyes as well. Perhaps I too needed the reminder of the goodness of the American soldier.

We are at our best when we recognize and embrace the spirit of the soldiers who stormed the beaches and filled the sky now 80 years ago.

The French seem to understand this far more deeply than we do. It is not too late for us to do the same.

We are still the light of freedom burning for the world to see. American boys and men stormed the beaches carrying that torch high in their hands. We’ve let time, our differences, and our self-entitlement dim that glow. Thankfully, from tiny embers, mighty flames can grow again.

We must fan them now, for that torch has passed to us. As the last vestiges of the Greatest Generation depart this earth to meet their maker, we must not forget their sacrifice. It is up to us now to bear the legacy, for freedom is a tenuous and precious thing.