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Each year on June 6, I recall the courage and sacrifice of the men who landed on those bloody Normandy beaches to gain a foothold on Hitler’s Fortress Europe. This year is the 75th anniversary of D-Day, which is being specially honored on both sides of the Atlantic; so I want to add my salute to the men who gave their all on that day of days.

Often I mark the day by reading a history of the Longest Day or watching Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan. But my favorite connections with that day—when the freedom of millions hung in the balance—have been conversations with the men who were in the thick of the fight, from generals to paratroopers to soldiers in the landing craft facing a wall of fire.

For many years I served on the staff of US Senator Jim DeMint and was often involved in helping organize veteran events. One of the really special times was an event for D-Day veterans. A special commemorative medal had been struck to mark the 60th anniversary of the battle, and Senator DeMint along with some members of Congress and Army officers presented the medals to each of the old warriors. Here’s my journal entry from that day.

June 6, 2004

 A special ceremony was held this afternoon to honor the veterans here in South Carolina who actually fought on the beaches of Normandy a lifetime ago, and over 200 of them gathered here today. Time has touched these once-jaunty GIs. Their strong, handsome faces were captured in fading photographs on display; but now their hair is silver, their shoulders a bit stooped. Some carried canes where once they carried rifles. Others took their place in the ranks in wheelchairs. Congressmen, senators, and generals were there to present the medals and, upon giving them, snapped salutes with esprit. Children brushed away tears of pride, while some of the men brushed away tears of sorrow—memories of friends now resting beneath rows of white crosses in the green fields of Normandy.

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Their sacrifice reminded me of a poignant dispatch sent back by the great war correspondent, Ernie Pyle, shortly after the beachhead was secured. He walked along the shore and described:

A thin little line, just like a high-water mark, for miles along the beach. This is the strewn personal gear, that will never be needed again, of those who fought and died to give us our entrance into Europe. Here in a jumbled row for mile on mile are soldier’s packs. Here are socks and shoe polish, sewing kits, diaries, Bibles, and hand grenades. . . . Here are the latest letters from home. . . Here are the toothbrushes and razors, and snapshots of families back home staring up at you from the sand. Two of the most dominant items in the beach refuse are cigarettes and writing paper. Each soldier was issued a carton of cigarettes just before he started. Today these cartons by the thousand, watersoaked and spilled out, mark the line of our first savage blow. Writing paper and airmail envelopes come in second. The boys had intended to do a lot of writing in France. Letters that would have filled those blank, abandoned pages.

We are left to fill in those blank pages, and today we got to write little love-notes on them and pledge that we will not forget those who served and sacrificed during Freedom’s crucial hour.

I was struck today by the fact that these were the men who actually DID it—along with thousands of other Americans, Canadians, and British troops who that day began the liberation of millions from Nazi tyranny. But it did not happen because they talked about it a lot, had the best of intentions, or even trained well. They had to actually go in and risk everything. These were the men who were in the arena.

To me D-Day is more than a hard-fought, decisive, history-changing event. It was all of that, but the example of those brave men also models the spirit that I’ve seen in men and women who have followed Christ to the hard places. The missionary trailblazer to Africa, David Livingstone, with his usual directness once said, “Sympathy is no substitute for action.”  It took action and sacrifice to liberate a continent, and action and sacrifice are required to take the liberating Message of the Gospel to the ends of the earth. The Christian’s proper place is in the arena—not on the sidelines. Our Lord Jesus came into this world and without hesitation went straight into the arena. He invites us to follow.