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To Normandy and back: A Soldier’s perspective

By Sgt. 1st Class Abram Pinnington | 1ST INF. DIV. PUBLIC AFFAIRS | June 11, 2014

Editor’s note: Soldiers with the 1st Infantry Division are taking part in ceremonial events June 4 to 7 in conjunction with the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy, France. They are set to participate in various ceremonies highlighting the historic World War II battle. Sgt. 1st Class Abram Pinnington is a public affairs noncommissioned officer for the 1st Inf. Div.

When I was informed of my assignment to cover 1st Infantry Division Soldiers as they helped commemorate the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy, France, I couldn’t begin to describe my feelings.

After the initial shock, I found myself honored to be one of few who would have the opportunity to experience this once-in-a-lifetime event.

As time wore on, I began to feel nervous about this assignment. Could I sufficiently cover these events? Could I give these ceremonies the colorful narrative they deserve? Could I capture images that tell the full story?

These questions plagued me for weeks leading up to the trip. However, I found myself taking a step back and looking at this with different eyes. This perspective finds me often during my travels.

I started to look at everything as if I was a 1st Inf. Div. Soldier in 1944, staring at the bluffs of Omaha Beach. That Soldier had one task: Do whatever it took to accomplish the mission, something much larger than one’s self.

So, with a perspective as wide as the Hubble Space telescope, I am eager and motivated to accomplish this assignment with all that I have, although I plan on taking in every second of this experience, too.

THE FLIGHT(S)

Along with five Soldiers with the Commanding General’s Mounted Color Guard, 18 from the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team and two from the 1st Inf. Div. Public Affairs Office, we departed Kansas City International Airport for Charlotte, North Carolina.

Once we arrived at our first stop, we conducted a quick jog with all our gear across the terminal to our next gate. Nothing like navigating a packed terminal loaded down with all your stuff, while the clock ticks down. With less than 10 minutes to spare, we arrived and loaded onto our flight to Fayetteville, North Carolina. Exhale.

After a flight short enough for me to consume only half my beverage, we arrived and soon found ourselves at Pope Army Airfield, Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

Upon unloading our luggage, we were taken to an Air Force building, where we would wait for more than seven hours for our flight to Newfoundland, Canada. However, the time allowed for more reflection on the brave Soldiers who waited for D-Day.

No matter the discomfort my 21st century body endured during the night, I did my best to not complain. I shared this same perspective with fellow travelers, often greeted with a half smile and a “Yeah, you’re right.”

As we loaded into our Air Force C-130 cargo plane, I couldn’t help but feel a sudden rush from historical similarities. Seventy years ago, airborne Soldiers loaded into propped airplanes with the same destination as I: France. I thought of them with every bump I felt – sitting silent, deafened from the roar of the propellers slicing the air, surrounded by deep blue Atlantic waters.

As I reflected while staring off at the Earth’s horizon, I wondered how many Soldiers did the same as they made the trek to France. However, this is where the similarities ended.

Those Soldiers were on their way to fight Adolf Hitler and his massive German Army, and I’m on my way celebrating their victory 70 years later.

To say that moment humbled me would be an understatement.

So, as I sit in this British Starbucks, with free wireless Internet, I pause once again and realize all that has been provided to this world thanks to that brave generation and all they sacrificed that fateful morning June 6, 1944.

What a different world it would be, indeed.

LIBERATION

Tired, sore and hungry after more than 48 hours of traveling and resting in airport terminals, we arrived in France.

Eventually, we loaded onto buses for a ride through the French countryside to our final destination. Once we found our cots and put our gear down, our next mission was to find a restaurant and eat some French cuisine.

My colleague, Sgt. Michael Leverton, and I walked into Carentan, only to find everything was closed for the evening. However, as we neared the gate to our barracks, we noticed lights flickering in the distance. Our curiosity got the best of us, and we headed toward the blinking establishment.

As we glanced through the windows, six men in World War II uniforms sat around a bar.

“Let’s go check this out,” I said.

As I walked in, my nerves were pretty high. I didn’t know what to expect in this foreigner-filled room. After the initial silence between our parties, we were greeted with overwhelming cheers of “HEYYY!!” – the universal language for “welcome!”

The six men were from Belgium and traveled here on vintage Harley Davidson motorcycles for the D-Day ceremonies as American WWII re-enactors. We later found out they participate in various ceremonies here, as Gen. George S. Patton and his drivers. Needless to say, they were excited to meet my friend and me.

After a quick introduction, I found myself with a Belgian beer in my hand, telling stories about everything they wanted to know about myself and my career. They were enamored with our “Big Red One” patches and my 101st Airborne Division combat patch. They soaked up everything we said, did and breathed.

One of the men recited, almost line-by-line, a speech from “Band of Brothers.” They loved everything about the Americans and the history of WWII. One of the men knew many U.S. Army running cadences. His rhythm and knowledge of our songs rivaled the best of Soldiers’.

It was then I found myself completely in awe of them, their love for the American Soldier and their respect for our Army.

However, as the time passed, I had one question for the men: “Why? Why are you here? What is the reason you traveled more than 16 hours on a motorcycle, dressed like American WWII Soldiers? Why?”

When I posed the question, the answer was easy. Through decent English, they said, “You liberated us. You gave us our lives. You freed our country.”

I had to let it sink in for a moment.

It’s a powerful feeling to experience. I know it wasn’t me who liberated them from the Nazis, but it was those brave men who did in the 1940s.

These men showed us what celebrating freedom truly is. They talked about their families taking refuge from the Nazis and how they danced in the streets when the war ended.

The story of WWII was no longer in a movie, in a history book or a TV series. It was right in front of us. I found myself in the middle of the liberation and the gratitude that followed such a monumental moment in history.

Sure, we celebrate freedom in America, but it’s almost become more about grilling, drinking and fireworks.

There are many memories a person creates in his life, and this has become one of my all-time favorites. As my fellow Soldiers with the 1st Inf. Div. awoke for their first French morning here, they’ll begin making their own memories.
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