The D-Day Veteran I Will Never Forget
He sat in my office with perfect posture and clenched fists. His smile seemed strained in the few seconds it flashed across his face before receding into a grim line.
He wasn’t angry or hostile. He was just overcome with the burden of the pain he’d been carrying for decades. I’d seen him before- or versions of him- in dozens of veterans from wars fought long ago.
I knew that when he was ready he would unburden himself on his own. Some small talk, a comment about the weather, and the photos on my wall. His eyes flicked from one photo to the next, settling on the picture of my husband before flitting back to the shelf where the ceremonial sword perched next to an extensive coin collection.
I could see him thinking, wondering if it all meant what he thought it meant. I knew the moment had arrived to pave the way for him.
Those are my kids, and that was my husband, I tell him. Yes, the plaque does say that he was killed in Iraq. It’s almost unreal how easily those words fall from my own lips now, all these years later, even though the sadness and pain will never fully recede.
To some that may seem cold of me to sound so matter-of-fact when I share those details. But to this man it does not. This man understands the strength it takes to arrive at a place where those words pass my lips at all, let alone without toppling me over as they once did.
He’s close now. I’ve opened the door for him and he wants to walk through.
He senses a camaraderie in me, in our shared pain even though he never met my husband and I never wore this nation’s uniform, let alone took part in D- Day.
A deep breath, an exhale, an unclenching of his fists and the words poured out. Some of them were just boys, he said.
They should have been chasing girls or helping their parents with chores, but instead they were there, huddled in the landing craft he piloted. He would not be disembarking with them. Instead, he would shepherd them off the craft, into the shallow water where he knew many of them would be killed.
Those that made it to the beach would face almost certain death or injury, for this was a battle in which they were severely outgunned and outmanned.
The inner turmoil his duty created was immense.
Some of the boys were crying or vomiting in fear.
Some sat stoically.
All of them believed they were moments from their own death and their own mortality rode alongside them on that craft. My small office disappeared and for a moment it felt as though he took me with him back through time, in his mind, to that day, as his voice broke and the space around us filled with the torment he’d carried all those years.
How could he have done that, he wondered? How could he have forced those boys off that landing craft and marched them to their deaths?
Over and over the craft made that trip; from the transport ship, loaded with terrified young men, to the beach, where some begged him not to get off while others shoved the frightened men out of their way to take the initial onslaught of death themselves. For him, it was difficult to know which he carried more guilt over – the young men with tears streaming down their faces as they kissed photos of their families goodbye or the grim-faced men who charged as if fearless right into that water, storming that beach.
He hated himself for all of it.
He hated himself all these years because he blamed himself for their deaths. He felt unworthy of life because he’d simply stood there while they stepped straight into hell.
There are moments in life where purpose is given to pain. That was such a moment for me. We were both gently crying at that point. I felt like I was living history in that room, and feeling the weight of his guilt. But time had given me perspective.
Amazing people had helped me find my strength and I’d learned to believe that there is purpose to be found in pain, even when it does not seem possible.
At that moment I knew why God had placed me in that room with this man. It was time for me to do for him what so many had done for me, and I knew exactly how.
I spoke to him not as if he was an elderly man weeping in front of me. I did not speak to the image of a broken person in that chair. I spoke to the warrior inside of him, and I told him it was time to stop holding on to that guilt.
What would all those men think, I asked him, if they knew as they stepped into those waters that the life they were forfeiting at that moment would be lessened for him? What would they think if they knew their Brother lived his life only halfway when they gave their whole life that day?
Would they want Evil to claim one more moment of happiness from one more person, or would they want Evil to be defeated not just with blood, but with joy?
I told him my husband would not begrudge any person joy, even though he lost his own life. I told him the best way to honor their sacrifices, their tears, and their pain and their horror was to be grateful for every moment we have, because of them. And I told him he was not the coward he believed himself to be.
He was, in fact, the opposite. It took courage for him to do what he did that day in Normandy and it took courage for him to sit in my office and open up to me. Now he would have to carry that courage into the rest of his life, and live a grateful life for himself and in honor of every man who died that day, and ever since.
He’d come to me to file a claim for PTSD – Decades after D-Day and the war was won – because a battle still raged within him.
He never did file the claim and I never heard from him again. But he gave me a strong hug and he walked out of my office with a smile.
So did I.
Barb Allen is the premier keynote speaker for “Turning Trauma Into Triumph.” Her combination of inspiration, humor, and proven results-oriented strategies add up to an experience your people will thank you for repeatedly, and never forget! She draws upon her own life experiences as well as extensive interviews with others who have overcome their own traumas or whose extraordinary actions impact and inspire others. Click here to book Barbara Allen