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‘It just tore my heart out:’ World War II veterans to revisit their battlefields

The Greatest Generation may not have many more opportunities to revisit their battlefields.
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World War II veterans
WWII Veteran Walter Stowe and his Best Defense Foundation caretaker retired Navy Seal, Jack Carr visit the many graves at the Normandy American Cemetery. (Photo courtesy of the Best Defense Foundation)

In 2006, then-NFL linebacker Donnie Edwards was talking to a group of World War II veterans who wanted to visit Normandy, but they felt they were too old to make the trip.

Edwards volunteered on the spot to take the former paratroopers to France, and they quickly agreed. That brief conversation ultimately resulted in Edwards and some of his friends making their first trip with World War II veterans to the battlefields they had risked their lives on decades ago.

Their trip began in Holland, where U.S. and British paratroopers landed in September 1944 as part of Operation Market Garden, Edwards told Task & Purpose.

“I was blown away by what I saw,” Edwards said. “They created a whole weeklong event for these veterans coming back. When I say the whole country of the Netherlands came out, it was truly amazing. It was an impromptu deal that we made happen. There was a parade that they did with 100 different vehicles. The veterans were just adorned like The Beatles. I was taken back. I didn’t realize the love and appreciation to have the liberators back on the land that they liberated for the Dutch people.”

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World War II veterans
World War II veteran, Robert “Bud” Sabetay receives the Legion of Honor in Carentan, Normandy on June 5, 2022 during the 78th anniversary events. (Photo courtesy of the Best Defense Foundation)

That experience was a life-changing event for Edwards, who realized he wanted to give other World War II veterans the opportunity to experience the gratitude of people who live in freedom today because of their service and sacrifices.

In 2018, Edwards founded the Best Defense Foundation, a nonprofit group that also honors veterans from the Korean and Vietnam Wars. The foundation has taken more than 100 World War II veterans on battlefield return trips to Europe and the Pacific, and the group has a trip to Normandy for 45 World War II veterans that is scheduled to begin on May 31.

“We want to make sure that this is a moment of closure for them and a way for them to connect with their brothers and sisters that fought alongside them,” said Amanda Thompson, the foundation’s executive director.

Because the average age of the veterans making the trips is 100 years old, they will be accompanied by a staff of medics, paramedics, a physician, and several volunteers including active-duty service members and veterans of the post-9/11 wars, Thompson told Task & Purpose.

World War II veterans
World War II veteran, Andre Chappaz and his Best Defense Foundation caretaker are saluted as they pass active duty soldiers. (Photo courtesy of the Best Defense Foundation)

The foundation wants to give all World War II veterans the chance to see how much they are appreciated, even if they served in the United States during the war, Thompson said. Two of the veterans scheduled to make the upcoming trip to Normandy were in training during the war and they both said they didn’t feel they deserved any recognition because they didn’t see combat.

“To us, that doesn’t matter because they were prepared to fight and ready to go and step in where needed,” Thompson said.

The foundation does not take the veterans’ family members on battlefield returns, Thompson said. Instead, the veterans are accompanied by trained caretakers to allow them to share their wartime experiences.

For one World War II veteran, revisiting World War II battlefields allowed him to unburden himself of feelings that he could not share with his family, Edwards said. That soldier grew up in a very religious family and was taught “Thou shalt not kill,” so he was haunted by guilt after killing a German soldier.

“He carried this for a long time, and about six years ago he finally told everyone at one of our programs,” Edwards said. “He felt safe enough to let this off and he even said: ‘I was married for 55 years, and I’ve never told anybody this in my life. My wife didn’t know before she passed, but I’m telling this now.’ Being able to share that with his brothers lifted him so high, and it took a big weight off his back, and he’s become a new man since then.”

World War II
D-Day veteran, CP Martin greets the crowds of Normandy as they all say thank you. (Photo courtesy of the Best Defense Foundation)

That man was not the only veteran who experienced feelings of guilt long after the war ended. Edwards recalled how another soldier who was part of the first wave of the D-Day landings at Normandy was able to see Omaha Beach for the first time in 75 years.

The veteran got to see a bunker that he was supposed to destroy with a flamethrower on June 6, 1944.

“I said: What are you feeling right now?” Edwards said. “And you know what he said? He said: ‘I let my team down. I feel terrible that I didn’t reach my objective.’”

Given the average age of World War II veterans, Edwards said he expects next year will mark the final largescale battlefield return trips for the Greatest Generation. Those trips are scheduled to mark the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings at Normandy and Operation Market Garden.

Carrying full equipment, American assault troops move onto a beachhead code-named Omaha Beach, on the northern coast of France on June 6, 1944, during the Allied invasion of the Normandy coast. (AP Photo)

For decades after World War II, the veterans who took part in the victory came back home and quietly went back to their jobs and raised families, Edwards said. It has only been in the past 25 years or so that younger generations of Americans have realized the scope of their grandfathers’ heroism.

“I’m just really happy in their lifetime that we were able to honor them, because we’ve had relatively 79 years of peace, and it’s because of the Greatest Generation,” Edwards said. “These are all Great Depression babies. They went through so much. And to be able to give this back to them, to say ‘thank you’ in the twilight years of their lives, it’s just truly an amazing opportunity that we’re giving them through the foundation.”

John Foy, who fought at the Battle of the Bulge, is one of the veterans who will be taking part in the foundation’s upcoming trip to Normandy. During the war, Foy served under Lt. George S. Patton’s 3rd Army in Company A, 347th Infantry Regiment, 87th Infantry Division.

Foy, 97, said he has made about 10 trips to World War II battlefields so far including a visit to Belgium, where several of his buddies were killed in January 1945.

“I stood there and cried, honestly, at one place in particular where I lost five or six of my real good friends,” Foy told Task & Purpose. “They got killed in that area just outside of Bastogne, a small town called Tillet. It just tore my heart out to be on the same ground that I fought at many years before.”

Foy’s generation is rapidly leaving us. He founded a group of Battle of the Bulge veterans that had 125 members 30 years ago. Now, he’s the only one left.

He said the reason he keeps returning to World War II battlefields is “it just keeps me going.”

“It always seems to bring back a little different from the time before,” Foy said. “Every once in a while, I’ll meet some old friends, guys that I fought with 75, 80 years ago in the Army – or at least guys who had the same experiences that I had. It just kind of reinvigorates me.”

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