On D-Day -- the gift the Greatest Generation gave us 68 years ago

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For most of us, what we know of D-Day, with its images of men wading ashore, amidst a storm of gunfire from German troops, is taken from books or movies in which the end is known from the beginning: America triumphed, despite the loss of 9,000 soldiers, whose blood literally turned the waters at Normandy red.

It is a very different thing to have lived through the carnage. Because the men who did live through it had to put their psyches through paces most of us—God-willing—never will. They had to eschew safety and perform acts—like disembarking from landing craft, amidst gunfire—that could well lead to their deaths and the bereavement of those they would be leaving behind. They had to contemplate the calls and letters to loved ones who might well hear that they would never return home. They had to watch their friends drown amidst crimson waves that are nearly unthinkable, never mind understandable. They had to kill enemy soldiers they had never met, whose life stories they did not know, who bled just like them, and whose wives and children would suffer no less their own.

These experiences--these men--have sat with me when I worked at the Boston Veteran's Administration Hospital and shared searing memories.  And I empathized with them.  I encouraged them to say more.  But I never pretended I could know the depths of what they knew, what they saw.

To do all this, they had to throttle their fears, millions of neurons in their brains literally pouring out almost inhuman amounts of the calming neurotransmitter serotonin and withstanding crashing waves of the fight-or-flight neurotransmitters norepinephrine and dopamine. If their minds were made of muscles, theirs were running the equivalent of a full marathon through a gauntlet of killers who were claiming their buddies to their left and to their right. Yet there could be no rest and no retreat and no comfort.

At a time when anyone with a head would turn and run in the opposite direction from the guns on the beach, they had to use their guts and hearts to march toward them. Such dichotomies, I will tell you, can shred the mind and tear the soul. They can also turn it to steel and lock it shut, closing it off from anyone and everyone, sometimes, forever.

They had to live through the irrational wheel of fortune which left them alive while others, no less courageous and no less decent, died. They had to try to make sense of the chaos of the universe—how a bullet finds one man’s heart and misses another man’s head, maybe by less than an inch, maybe only because he turned to look at a friend who has been hit and is dying; how a husband and new father is taken when a single man survives; how a hero can be felled in the last seconds of a battle leading to triumph.

These are moments beyond reason, moments of almost unutterable impact, and they can leave the brain and mind reeling, pouring out terror as nightmares, as sudden and inexplicable panic, as sights and sounds that seem real and paralyzing twenty years later, when they are actually the deafening echoes of war. How does one find understanding after seeing the inexplicable unfold? How does one believe that tomorrow is likely, for oneself or one’s child, when the next instant was unknown on that bloody beach? How does one go to a baseball game and cheer for the home team, when victory or defeat once meant liberating millions from death camps, and safeguarding the entire future of mankind and his freedom.

Can anyone return home after such horrors, with such scars?

And, yet, return they did. To towns and cities and families and jobs. And the effort to live as mere mortals, seeing what they had seen, doing what they had done, could be its own trauma. To cross the Rubicon and return to everyday life after having confronted every imaginable horror and won back the future for the rest of us is a lifetime journey. It never ends. Not ever. Not for a moment. Sometimes, not even in sleep, not even in the arms of a lover, not even in the smile of a child or grandchild.

This, and no less, is what the men of D-Day gave willingly to keep us free.