June 2nd, 2018, telling the life story of Stanley Stockins. You never know who's standing just a few feet away from you.
For those of you who do not know what I do, every year I travel to Normandy where, at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, I stand vigil at the grave sites of three Paratroopers of the 3rd Battalion, 506th PIR, 101st Airborne, who were killed in action on D-Day in 1944.
During D-Day week, I stand vigil at their graves for several hours at a time. I do this while wearing an exact replica of the uniform they would have been wearing on the day they died. I wear the uniform in their honor, as a sacred symbol of who they were and what they died for. The uniform also serves to provide cemetery visitors with an immediate visual connection to my soldiers, who would otherwise appear to them as nothing more than names carved into white marble crosses. If cemetery visitors express an interest in learning about a soldier, I tell them his life story in English or in French. In the quiet moments when I am not teaching, I stand at the grave in revered silence. While I stand there, I think of my soldier, I pray for him and his family, and most importantly, I keep him company. It is my way of paying my respects to him and mourning his loss. I love my three Paratroopers with all my heart.
Since I first started standing vigil when I was 11 years old, I have told the life stories of my Paratroopers hundreds of times to over 1,000 cemetery visitors from all over the world. Among those visitors I've had the great honor of meeting American and British World War II veterans, active duty soldiers and veterans from every branch of the service and every rank from E-1 to O-7.
Over the years I’ve shared many special moments with cemetery visitors. I have been hugged many times and have touched many lives through my message of love and respect. Sometimes my encounters with people are emotional. In my M1 Garand ammunition bandolier, instead of carrying Enbloc clips, I carry packets of tissues I share with those who are brought to tears by the stories of my soldiers. Many people cry. Many people approach me and want to talk to me because they cannot talk to Stanley Stockins, Philip Germer, George Radeka, or the 9,377 others who are buried beneath the perfectly manicured lawn of the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. Some people approach me and tell me of family members who served in the war or who are currently serving. Some people approach me for personal reasons I will never fully comprehend; it was one of those people I would like to write about in this blog post.
The Old Man in the Cemetery
Saturday, June 2nd, 2018 was a warm and sunny day. The skies over the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial were a brilliant blue. It was my first day of standing vigil in the cemetery during my D-Day week-long visit. I decided to stand my first vigil at the grave of Stanley Stockins.
At about 3pm I was telling Stanley’s life story to a group of about 30 people who had gathered along the path that runs perpendicular to Stanley’s grave. Throughout the story I couldn’t help but notice an old man wearing a pale blue shirt, gray suspenders and a beige bucket hat. He started at one end of the crowd, then switched to the other. As I spoke, he took up a position where he could see me clearly. I could sense that he was particularly interested in something about me, though I couldn’t quite tell what it was.
When I conclude a story, people often approach me to ask questions about my Paratrooper. On this occasion, the old man in the blue shirt and bucket hat approached me. He seemed unusually fascinated with my weathered pair of Airborne jump boots. I could tell he wanted to talk to me, but many people who visit the cemetery do not speak English and this can be a barrier to communication. With years of experience, I’ve grown accustomed to trying to understand people by listening to the feeling I get from them. It’s like an instinct that bridges the language gap.
The old man came very close to me. His fixation on my boots made me feel uneasy. I quickly glanced behind him and determined he was alone. In one hand he held a map of the cemetery; the other hand was free. When people approach me, they usually respect my personal space, but at that moment I felt he'd crossed an invisible line. I waited anxiously to see what he might try to communicate to me. I watched as his eyes carefully studied my boots and then rose to look at a photo of Stanley I held in my hands. The old man wore thick glasses. Behind the lenses I could see he had light green eyes. I tried to judge his age, but it was difficult. One thing was sure: he was very old.
He looked up at me with a spark of excitement in his eyes, and in a thick German accent, he said: “Your boots! They are very nice! We didn't have any like those.”
His eyes returned to my boots. He pointed at them, and said, “My comrades and I had a special name for the boots worn by the American Paratroopers. We called them Kampfstiefel.” Thanks to the German I've learned at school, I was able to translate that to “combat boots.” The old man took a step back and looked up at the photo of Stanley. He pointed at Stanley and exclaimed: “I was his enemy!” With pride in his voice, he then added: “Yes. I was in the 21st Panzer Division here in Normandy!”
It took me a few seconds to realize that only few inches away, stood a German veteran from the battle of Normandy, and not just any veteran, a veteran of the formidable 21st Panzer Division. I stood speechless before him. I simply didn’t know how to reply to his statements. It was so much to take in so quickly. Several questions immediately fired in my mind: What is he doing here in the American Cemetery? Why is he so proud to tell me that he fought for the German Army? Why is he here alone? Why is he telling me this?
It was an awkward and confusing moment for me. Before I could react in any way, I watched as the enthusiastic expression on his face changed to a dark, heavy stare. As he glanced one last time down at my boots, I could tell he was thinking profoundly about something that had happened a long time ago. He then looked up at me, straight into my eyes. “I am sorry,” he said. This time there was no excitement in his voice, only regret, as if it was too late to apologize for something that had happened ten seconds ago in his memory or 74 years ago in a field not far from where we stood. “I am very sorry,” he added. I could feel those words came from so deep in his heart that it made me wonder if he had ever even said them before. As he stood there, only inches from me, I will never forget the sorrowful emptiness I saw in his light green eyes. He then walked past me and disappeared into the cemetery, leaving me with the feeling that I'd just been visited by a ghost.
Questions I cannot answer
I’ve had nearly a year to reflect about that meeting in the cemetery. I’ve often wondered: who was that veteran? What exactly was he sorry for? Was he sorry for the war? Or was it deeper than that? When he saw a 15 year old boy wearing the same uniform as a Paratrooper from 1944, did he feel the need to say sorry for having killed Paratroopers 74 years ago? Did he feel sorry for having sent young and joyful Americans to the cemetery right there where we stood, while he lived on for another three quarters of a century? I will never know the answers to these questions. Everything happened so quickly that I didn't have the time, opportunity, or presence of mind to ask him. Even if I could have asked those questions, I knew instinctively that it wouldn’t have been the right thing to do.
There was also the problem of the language barrier. Throughout the years of teaching in the cemetery, I have often come across that problem. As I mentioned, I've gotten used to going with my instinct. If I apply this to the situation with the German veteran, I would have to say that the moment he came up to me, I felt he wasn't just there to tell me about Stanley's boots. That was just an awkward way of starting a conversation. No, I had the feeling that he had come to the cemetery in search of something and while he was there, walking among the rows of white marble crosses and Stars of David, he found in my uniform, my sacred symbol, something he could finally say sorry to.
Maybe for him the burden of carrying eight decades of guilt caused by the horrors of war was lessened by our encounter. What he said may have surprised him as much as it surprised me. I was born and raised in Europe. I can tell you for sure that saying “sorry” is not something that Europeans do very easily. It’s not in their culture the same way it is in America. This leads me to imagine that this moment I have written about must have been an important one for the old veteran. I will never know if he found any closure in saying sorry that day. For his sake, I hope so.
Just a little old man making his way through the cemetery, wearing a bucket hat and suspenders, carrying with him the burden of a war that began 80 years ago.