NIJMEGEN, Netherlands (Sept. 17, 2015) -- As the sun set behind dark clouds on Sept. 17, U.S. Army paratroopers lined up on the far side of the bridge over the Waal River, prepared to walk across and reflect on those who gave their lives here in defense of freedom.

"The bridge was built over the route believed used to cross the river on Sept. 20, 1944, by 3rd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment and other units, such as the 307th Engineers," said Maj. Daniel Gershey, a plans officer with 82nd Airborne Division. "The lights on the bridge are memorials themselves. Each of the 48 lights represent a Soldier, who lost their life crossing the river."

The walk across the bridge is not unfamiliar for those who live in Nijmegen. Every night since the bridge was completed in 2013, a veteran designated as the "sunset marcher," lines up, waits for the lights, then silently walks across the bridge.

When the lights lining the bridge flickered and illuminated, Gershey led the file of paratroopers across the bridge towards the memorial. At the memorial, the paratroopers observed a moment of silence, then rendered a salute to honor those who gave their lives. Among the names inscribed on the memorial is Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Pvt. John R. Towle.

"With representatives from the 82nd Airborne Division, and support from other airborne units like 173rd Airborne Brigade, the event was very poignant," said Gershey. "It was the first time uniformed paratroopers from the U.S. conducted the commemorative walk."

Other paratroopers, who participated in the march, share that sentiment.

"It was moving to be a part of something this significant," said Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Willingham, a transportation management coordinator with the 173rd Airborne Brigade "It brought these units together and reminded us that we are a brotherhood, a family. It is something I'm proud to tell my Soldiers and my Family about. I get to tell them that I was one of the first to participate in what I think will become a tradition."

The sunset march across the Waal River was one of the first in a series of memorials and ceremonies honoring the 71st anniversary of Operation Market Garden.

"If we don't do these things and attempt to connect with veterans, we risk losing their memories," said Willingham, noting the significance of learning the history and participating in memorials such as the Waal River crossing.

Paratroopers from U.S. units are part of approximately 1,000 paratroopers from Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and the United Kingdom taking part in the 71st anniversary of Operation Market Garden. Market Garden was the largest airborne operation in history.