Virginia Soldiers around the world honor D-Day veterans on 72nd anniversary

Brig. Gen. Walter L. Mercer presents a wreath honoring the United States of America along with other Allied countries who took part in the D-Day invasion June 6, 2016, in Bedford, Virginia. (Photo by Cotton Puryear, Virginia National Guard Public Affairs)

Brig. Gen. Walter L. Mercer presents a wreath honoring the United States of America along with other Allied countries who took part in the D-Day invasion June 6, 2016, in Bedford, Virginia. (Photo by Cotton Puryear, Virginia National Guard Public Affairs)

BEDFORD, Va. — Virginia National Guard Soldiers in France, Virginia and multiple locations in the Central Command area of operations commemorated the 72nd anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy June 6, 2016, at events that paid tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice on D-Day and honored those who lived to fight another day. Senior leaders represented the Virginia Guard at ceremonies, Soldiers serving on federal active duty made time in their busy mission schedules to observe the somber occasion and the 29th Division Band provided ceremonial music at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford.

Brig. Gen. Blake C. Ortner, commander of the 29th Infantry Division, spoke during the 29th Infantry Division memorial ceremony at Omaha Beach in Sainte-Laurent-sur-Mer, France,

“I think one of the greatest things about being in Normandy as a 29th ID Soldier is the reaction from the people of Normandy to the 29th patch, especially in Vierville and Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer,” said Ortner, who was in Normandy as the 29th ID commander for the first time. He had previously visited in a civilian capacity. “The love, the appreciation, the respect they show to the Soldiers of the 29th is unbelievable.”

Maj. Gen. Timothy P. Williams, the Adjutant General of Virginia, shared his memories of the impact D-Day veterans had on his early life and military career as one of the speakers at the D-Day Memorial in Bedford. Brig. Gen. Walter L. Mercer, the Virginia National Guard Assistant Adjutant General – Army, presented a wreath honoring the United States of America along with other Allied countries who took part in the invasion, and Brig. Gen. John M. Epperly, Deputy 29th Infantry Division Commander – Virginia, joined members of the 29th Infantry Division Association in placing a memorial wreath for the division.

For the first time ever, the Bedford memorial staged a public reading of the names of all 2,499 American Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Coastguardsmen who lost their lives during the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944. Brig. Gen. Lapthe Flora, the Virginia National Guard Assistance Adjutant General – Strategic Initiatives, joined a team of readers including staff, volunteers, family members of the fallen, local and regional dignitaries and others.

In the Central Command area of operations Soldiers from the Winchester-based 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, also known as Task Force Normandy, held a 72nd D-Day Invasion Remembrance Ceremony to celebrate lineage to the 116th Infantry Regiment Soldiers who stormed Omaha Beach as part of Operation Overlord.

Soldiers of the 116th Military Engagement Team conducted a patch ceremony near Amman, Jordan, as part of a D-Day commemoration event hosted by the team. Col. Todd Hubbard, commander of the 116th MET, attached a 29th Infantry Division “combat patch” to the right shoulder sleeve of 10 of Soldiers on the 72nd anniversary of D-Day.

On June 6, 1944, more than 160,000 Allied troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of heavily-fortified French coastline to fight Nazi Germany on the beaches of Normandy, France. More than 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft supported the D-Day invasion, and by day’s end, the Allies gained a foot-hold in Continental Europe. However it came with a steep price. More than 10,000 Americans lost their lives on D-Day. More than 800 members of the 116th were killed, wounded or missing during the assault on Omaha Beach.

The heroic efforts of the Allied troops is still remembered and celebrated in Normandy today, but not just by the French citizens who remember, and endured, the war.

“One of the greatest things I see is it’s not just the adults, it’s not just the old people,” Ortner said. “They teach their children about what the 29th means and what they did. You would have a lot of them coming up, saying, ‘Thank you.’ That was one of the most moving things I saw.”

For nearly two years, from October 1942 to June 1944, Soldiers of the 29th ID trained in Scotland and England, preparing for the Normandy invasion. On D-Day, the 29th ID’s 116th Infantry Regiment was in the first assault wave to hit the beaches and more than 800 members of the 116th were killed.

When the 116th Infantry was activated Feb. 3, 1941, Virginia communities provided Soldiers to serve in the unit, and Bedford provided Soldiers to serve in Company A, 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division. During the assault on Omaha Beach, 19 of the “Bedford Boys” of Company A died. Bedford’s population in 1944 was about 3,200, and proportionally the Bedford community suffered the nation’s most severe D-Day losses. Recognizing that Bedford represented both large and small communities whose citizen-Soldiers served on D-Day, Congress warranted the establishment of the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, and this year’s event marked the 15th anniversary of the historic site’s dedication.

“As a young boy I grew up listening to their stories and then learning in school what they went through,” said Williams in regard to World War II veterans. “The more I learned the more I realized how special they were. In retrospect I wish terribly that I could go back in time to talk with them, thank them, shake their hand and look them in the eye one more time to let them know what a privilege it was to know them and the inspiration they provided me. I believe that each generation of America rises to the challenges that they face,” he said. “The young soldiers and airmen will never know the terrible carnage of Omaha Beach or the shattered forest of Meuse-Argonne but they meet their own challenge in the hills of Afghanistan or in the dust of Iraq and Syria.”

The Clifton Forge-based 29th Division Band provided ceremonial music and performed additional music throughout the day, then played taps to close out the day’s events.