Va. Guard Soldiers help commemorate 70th anniversary of Normandy invasion at National D-Day Memorial

Soldiers from the 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team escort D-Day veteran Carl "Chubb" Proffitt at the ceremony to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy June 6, 2014, at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Va. (Photo by Cotton Puryear, Virginia National Guard Public Affairs)

Soldiers from the 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team escort D-Day veteran Carl “Chubby” Proffitt at the ceremony to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy June 6, 2014, at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Va. (Photo by Cotton Puryear, Virginia National Guard Public Affairs)

BEDFORD, Va. — Virginia National Guard senior leaders, as well as Virginia Guard Soldiers from the 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team and 29th Division Band, joined thousands of other Virginians in honoring the efforts and sacrifices of D-Day veterans at a ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy June 6, 2014, at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Va.

Brig. Gen. Timothy P. Williams, the Adjutant General of Virginia, and Brig. Gen. Blake Ortner, the Virginia Guard Land Component Commander, each read historical vignettes during the ceremony. Brig. Gen. Timothy E. Gowen, Deputy Commanding General- Maryland for the 29th Infantry Division, joined members of the 29th Infantry Division Association in placing a memorial wreath for the division.

It was a true honor and privilege to be in Bedford to pay tribute to the heroism and sacrifices of all the Soldiers and Sailors that were part of Operation Overlord,” Williams said.

Soldiers from the 116th IBCT escorted D-Day and World War II veterans throughout the ceremony while the Clifton Forge-based 29th Division Band provided ceremonial music for the event.

Hundreds of World War II veterans and their families attended the ceremony, including nearly 300 D-Day veterans, the largest contingent to attend an anniversary service since the memorial opened in 2001.

“I was proud and honored to represent the 29th Division at today’s 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings,” said Gowen. “It was a truly moving event. To see the faces of the Soldiers of the ‘Greatest Generation’ that fought the terrible fight on those beaches so long ago, and to hear their stories, to learn of their hardships and sacrifices, and most importantly to hear about their fellow Soldiers that were left there on the beach, it really does provide to me a sense of increased devotion to the cause of freedom.”

Bob Sales, 91, served with the Virginia National Guard’s Company B, 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division, on D-Day. He was the only one of 30 men from his landing craft to survive the invasion.

“For those of us who were there, we will never forget,” he wrote in a speech his wife read during the ceremony. “But we owe it to those who never left Normandy to ensure that it never happens again. It was one of the worst things I’ve seen in my entire life.”

Sales battled his way across France and fought in Europe for six more months before he was wounded and left partially blind. In February 2014, French President Francois Hollande made Sales a knight of the French Legion of Honor.

“I tell you my story because it is on our hands as veterans and citizens to preserve the legacy of those who were there,” Sales wrote. “Seventy years ago has passed since our generation gathered in the air, on the sea and sands of Normandy. Yet here we are, gathered today, joined by three generations to pay homage to our brothers in arms. It is an honor to be here today and I believe I speak for all my fellow veterans when I say it is my deepest desire to not only keep this memorial open but to see it grow so that generations of young people will learn from what was achieved 70 years ago.”

For Command Sgt. Maj. Brunk Conley, command sergeant major of the Army National Guard, the memorial holds special significance. His grandfather jumped into Normandy on D-Day and Conley previously served on active duty with the 2nd Ranger Battalion, which also participated in the D-Day invasion.

“So this has a special place for me,” he said. “What a beautiful memorial. It’s so important to remember the sacrifices these men made.”

Like 11 other Virginia communities, Bedford provided Soldiers to serve in Company A, 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division when the 116th was activated on Feb. 3, 1941. 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 14th anniversary of the historic site’s dedication.

Dedicated by the President of the United States on June 6, 2001, the National D-Day Memorial exists in tribute to the valor, fidelity, and sacrifice of the Allied Forces on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The National D- Day Memorial Foundation operates and maintains the Memorial, and its educational mission is to preserve the lessons and legacy of D-Day.

Operation Overlord was the largest air, land, and sea operation undertaken before or since June 6, 1944.

The memorial has four major components that represent the sweep of D-Day from the early planning and preparation for it, through the Channel crossing and landing in France, on to the Allied victory and consolidation on the beaches, and beyond Normandy into the landscape of postwar Europe. Within those components, visitors encounter a moving array of small memorials and tributes. Many of those are brought to life by the figurative sculpture emplaced throughout the Memorial.

About Master Sgt. A.J. Coyne

Master Sgt. Coyne is the NCOIC for the Virginia National Guard Public Affairs Office. He can be reached at andrew.j.coyne4.mil@mail.mil or by phone at 757-541-2010. You can follow the Virginia National Guard on Twitter @VaGuardPAO.