A Reflection on Valor, Peace, and Thanksgiving

M.A. in Political Science, European Union Policy Studies

 By George Vergara 

There was no wind at all as I walked the hallowed grounds of the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach in Normandy- only stagnant air. Every few minutes, the slightest breeze came from the sea just a few hundred yards away, which couldn’t even be distinguished from the overcast gray skies when you looked out over it. The only audible sounds were those of softly chirping birds. The smell of the wet, freshly cut grass filled the air. Looking out, the number of white marble crosses seemed to never end. You almost forgot that a coffin containing an American lay beneath each one. It wasn’t even fathomable that so many of them lost their lives only a short walk from where they now eternally rest. As I wandered through the perfectly organized rows, I realized that some of them were Virginians younger than me- including a few who I presumed to be some of the famous Bedford Boys. It was a time for reflection- a time to step back from the bustle of daily life, humble myself, and give thanks.

My Normandy trip over the annual EUPS spring break included trademark D-Day stops in Carentan, Caen, Utah Beach, Bayeux, and Sainte-Mère-Église. Each place had its own story, many of which have been told through films (Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, etc.). Although it was a special moment to visit each place and reflect on the valiant efforts of my fellow Americans from 75 years earlier, my time in Normandy sparked a new and deeper thought: that had it not been for the sacrifice of these men, who left their homes, families, and everything they knew to fight in this foreign European land, the peace, tranquility and strength of our democratic American and European communities would not be guaranteed today. There could be no EU, no transatlantic cooperation, no freedom in general.

A month after my time in Normandy, the U.S. Consulate in Florence held its annual Memorial Day celebration at the American Military Cemetery just outside of the city. Since I am a consular intern during the EUPS summer term, I tagged along with their office to help with the event. As we approached the cemetery, a similar sentiment to the one from Normandy fell over me. It was another cloudy day with overcast skies and little wind. Walking in from the entrance at the base of a hillside, I could see that the cemetery is divided into two blocs and extends upwards. By the time the F35s from Aviano Air Force Base thundered overhead during the national anthem and beginning of the ceremony, the sun had begun to peek through and a strong, yet peaceful feeling enveloped the area. The keynote speakers, Deputy Chief of Mission (Deputy Ambassador of the US to Italy) Kelly Degnan, NATO Supreme Allied Commander General Tod Wolters, and Consulate General Ben Wohlauer each delivered powerful addresses highlighting the valiance and sacrifices of the nearly 4,400 American heroes buried only a few yards away. When I asked Josh Pickett (EUPS ’19), an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran, what he thought of the ceremony, he was content and honored by the gestures of the many Italians who attended. “Despite any kind of recent friction between the EU and the US, I think there is a bright future in store for their relationship. It’s heartwarming as a veteran to see such care and love from the Italians by coming out and attending the ceremony on this special day for us,” he said.

As the EUPS school year comes to a close, moments like these are reminders of how fortunate we are to have such great opportunities in our lives. Opportunities to attend graduate school in a foreign country; opportunities to learn about politics and the peacekeeping processes of both Europe and the U.S.; opportunities to intern and work with diplomatic missions, law offices and non-profit organizations; opportunities, above all, to live in a free and peaceful part of the world and to do what we can to make it a better place for everyone. As we move forward in our lives, it is important to remember to sometimes step away from the fast lane. Reflect on what could have been. Always strive to make the world a better place for yourself, your family, friends, and community. To the men and women who have paid the ultimate price, in the past and in the present, we thank you.

George Vergara is a member of the EUPS class of 2019. He studied abroad in Florence with JMU’s SIF program in the fall of 2016. He graduated from JMU in May 2018 with a B.A. in Political Science & Italian and a double minor in Modern European Studies & Italian Business. George has served as an intern for the US Consulate in Florence.

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Published: Thursday, August 8, 2019

Last Updated: Thursday, April 25, 2024

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