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Graham: Our D-Day orders: Earn this

People visit as helicopters pass overhead Monday, June 3, 2019. at the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy, France. (Rafael Yaghobzadeh/AP)

People visit as helicopters pass overhead Monday, June 3, 2019. at the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy, France. (Rafael Yaghobzadeh/AP)

With the 75th anniversary of D-Day coming on Thursday, I broke out my copy of “Saving Private Ryan” over the weekend.

For the somehow uninitiated, Steven Spielberg’s 1998 classic opens with the Allied invasion of the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944, then follows an Army Infantry battalion on its mission to find and bring home a paratrooper whose brothers have been killed in action.

(I will not go into the Oscars fiasco … I will not go into the Oscars fiasco … I will not go into the Oscars fiasco …)

I am not afraid to admit this movie always brings me to tears for two central reasons.

Courier coverage

On June 6, the Courier will have a series of articles, talking to local veterans about the D-Day invasion and their experiences.

One, it reminds me of my grandfather, who died of cancer in 1989. I never thought of him as being open with his emotions, which I attributed mostly to his generation and Iowa upbringing. He could be a little gruff at times, but he also helped fashion the family-first attitude I carry with me today.

Along with those other factors, I think his time in the service also shaped his reticence. He never discussed it with me, but I was told he served as a radio man in a tank and was involved in the Battle of the Bulge among other conflicts.

The only time my brothers, cousins and I ever tried to talk with my grandfather about the subject was when I was about 10 years old. We had been playing “war” in the backyard of my grandparents’ home when he came out to do some yard work. We knew he had been in the Army, and excited from our game we ran up to him and asked about his experiences.

“That’s not something we talk about, boys,” he said, and from his stern tone we knew he meant that was the end of the conversation. We never broached the subject with him again.

As I watched “Saving Private Ryan” the first time, I found myself thinking about my grandfather and other Americans who saw serious combat in World War II. I cannot begin to imagine the emotional impact that must have on a person. I thought about the burden he carried all those years and wished I could have been brave enough to reach out to him.

Niagara Falls ensues. It happens no matter how many times I watch the film

The other part of the movie that impacts me the most is not the most famous — a realistic, shocking, bloody sequence on Omaha Beach as Allied troops make their initial landing in the face of a heavy Nazi onslaught. Instead, it is four words spoken near the end of the film by Tom Hanks as his character, Capt. John H. Miller, sits mortally wounded near a bridge in the fictional town of Ramelle.

The mission and final battle have resulted in the deaths of nearly all the men who started out together. Miller pulls the movie title’s namesake, PFC James Francis Ryan, close to him and says “Earn this ... earn it.”

Miller means for Ryan to make sure all those lives were not given in vain, for him to live a life that honors those losses.

For me, and hopefully everyone who watches the film, the words speak to the greater sacrifices of all real-life American servicemen and women over too many wars and conflicts fought for many reasons. How can you ponder that and not become emotional?

On Thursday, we honor all those who participated in the D-Day invasion (and remember, it was not just American blood that was shed on the Normandy beaches). They stood by each other as bullets flew and shells rained down (not to forget the paratroopers, pilots and others who took to treacherous skies). They advanced in the face of grave danger, overcame bad weather and fierce resistance to achieve the ultimate goal: the capture of five beaches to set about the turning point of the war.

We cannot allow those actions and bravery to ever be forgotten.

And while we look back on the efforts of real-life heroes, hear the words of a fictional Army captain and Pennsylvania school teacher: “Earn this.”

Doug Graham is Community Editor for The Daily Courier. He can be reached at dgraham@prescottaz.com.

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