On November 11, 2011 I visited the US military cemetery outside Luxembourg City with the British and the American ambassadors. The drive to the graves was short. Luxembourg was a small duchy. I looked out the window of the Jaguar. The morning sun struggled to break through the low fog. It would have little success on that day as it had at the end of 1944..
In December of 1944 over four thousand American fell in the Battle of the Bulge. Our troops had stopped the Nazis by Christmas, but the savage fight had been a close thing.
The German ambassador waited at the gate. He had come to lay a wreath in honor of the dead. Beyond him thousands of white crosses marked the graves of my fallen countrymen.
I got out of the British ambassador's Jaguar and walked away from the assembled dignitaries like the old man at the beginning of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.
"Are you okay?" The American ambassador caught up with me at a wall rusty with autumn leaves.
"Yes." There were tears in my eyes. These men were from my father's generation. "I'm surprised by it all."
"I felt the same way the first time I saw all these graves." The ambassador was a few years older than me. "Let's walk to the back of the cemetery."
Each one had died in the bitter cold of December 1944. They hailed from every nationality. Most had been in their twenties. More than a few were from my home state.
We arrived at the last row and returned to General Patton’s grave. He was forever at the head of his army.
I think I got some more dust in my eyes, as a lone bugler played taps. The American ambassador patted my shoulder. We didn't have to say another word.
The next day I traveled to Charleroi and mentioned this visit to an American friend. Vonelli poured me a glass of Orval Beer and we sat by the fire in his living room.
"My father had been with the artillery in the Battle of the Bulge and my old man never got over the horror of that winter."
Vonelli was a veteran of a colder war from the 70s.
"Every morning the platoon commander would hold a lottery, which picked the forward observers from the ranks. After the results the chosen men would shake hands with their friends, knowing their chances of coming back in the evening were close to nil."
"And they went?"
"It's what they did," Vonelli said with reverence.
I thought about the graves that the ambassador and I had passed yesterday and seeing those marked unknown.
"They were the best of the best." We could only hope to honor their sacrifice.
"That they were."
Maybe the dust in my eye had had something to do with the lump in my throat, because those men had been us once and I am eternally grateful in the Here-Now as well as dedicated to keeping the peace in the Here-Beyond.
It's the least I can do for those men.