One of the positive aspects of my time in the service has been the opportunity to travel overseas. I’ve had chance to see more than 45 nations- not all of them friendly to ours- while serving. Of all the places I’ve visited, Western Europe has by far left the most memorable impressions.
One of the reasons for that has been the history, specifically the military history. While most tourists skate by to see the classic cultural landmarks, a detour into the French countryside opens one’s eyes to the impact war has had on the region.
As an American, I’d had the privilege to be born and raised in a nation that has avoided the devastation of total war on her soil since 1865. No so the countries of Europe. A millennium of war is etched onto the landscape. While serving in Germany in 2009 and 2010, I took time to visit the numerous battlefields and monuments scattered across the continent.
First for any American travelling through Western Europe are the battlefields of WW2. From the invasion of Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, one can follow the Allies trek across occupied France and see the site of every major confrontation. On my first mission to Europe in 2009, my crew and I made a trip specifically to Bastogne and other battlefields in Belgium where American forces fought the German Wehrmacht.
While the battlefields of WWII are moving, nothing prepares one for the devastation and numbers of headstones marking the Western Front of WWI. Americans too often neglect the First World War- maybe because it was eclipsed by the war following it, or perhaps the cultural memories have begun to fade. When I learned that I was only half a days drive from the battlements and trenches while serving in Germany, I made a special effort to visit these places. I was surprised even among my peers in the Armed Forces, too few knew anything about the war or had an interest in learning about it. Gathering a small group of the more curious of my fellow airmen, I rented a car and bought a map before journeying across eastern France.
I won’t try to retell the history or even explain the emotional impact of seeing places like Verdun, all I will say if you have the opportunity to visit, you must do so.
One day I hope to return and see the many other monuments, forts, and battlefields in Europe. There is more than any person can see in a lifetime, of course. But I consider it a duty, both as a soldier and a world citizen, to learn of these conflicts and see these places with my own eyes.