By Jim Dresbach, Pentagram Staff WriterFebruary 18, 2014
JOINT BASE MYER-HENDERSON HALL, Va. -The United States of America and the French Republic reaffirmed a multi-century friendship Feb. 11 in the Military District of Washington with multiple gestures of diplomatic pageantry.
The visit by French President Francois Hollande was the first official state visit to the U.S. by a French head of state since 1996.
The arrival of Hollande in America comes on the heels of the French Embassy honoring 11 U.S. veterans with the Legion of Honor Jan. 27 at the French embassy in Washington. Following an Arlington National Cemetery wreath-laying and the awarding of the Legion of Honor to the World War II Unknown Soldier, the French president personally decorated six D-Day veterans the Ordre national de la Légion d'honneurs-the highest award given by the French for bravery or service-during an afternoon reception at the Fort Myer Officers Club at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall.
"These soldiers, who in June 1944, came to a foreign land on beaches they had never seen before, and they came to France to fight," Hollande said through an interpreter. "Seventy years after the Normandy landing, we are commemorating their immense sacrifice which you gentlemen, the veterans, and your brothers-in-arms made to liberate our country."
While praising Legion of Honor recipients and military veterans John Cheban, Arthur Ordel, Henry Ponton, Robert Sales, George Shenkle and Charles Toms, the French president reminded his countrymen and Americans in the Koran Room that 60,000 U.S. Soldiers were killed in action, and never returned to American soil and are buried above the Normandy beaches.
Before the reception at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, the French president was accompanied by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Joint Force Headquarters-National Capital Region-Military District of Washington Commander Maj. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan to the Tomb of the Unknowns. Near the tomb, Hollande and Hagel made remarks regarding the profound friendship and generosity the two countries share. That generosity was again indicative when Hagel thanked the French president for honoring World War II's American Unknown Soldier.
"We celebrate centuries of friendship between our nations and between our militaries. That friendship endures," Hagel said. "While this soldier's identity is unknown, the meaning of his sacrifice is not. He died helping to liberate a continent and building a just peace and upholding the right to be free. His service helped change the tide of human history and deepened the bonds between our nations."
During his JBM-HH speech, Hollande revealed that President Barack Obama had confirmed plans to visit Normandy in June for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, but that the day belonged to the men who originally landed at Omaha beach, flew sorties and parachuted behind enemy lines nearly seven decades ago.
"This is really the capstone of my career," said Cheban of Vienna, Va. "Of course this came as a complete shock that this was going to happen, but I'm also thankful I survived this long."
Cheban participated in aerial missions above Normandy on D-Day. About 4,000 ships, 11,000 planes and 3 million service members assembled for the June 6 invasion, according to the National Archives. Nearly 4,900 U.S. troops were killed in action that day.