BRUSSELS, Belgium -- June 6 is a particularly memorable day in U.S. military history. This year, it marks the 65th anniversary of the Normandy invasion and the start of the liberation of western Europe.
While Presidents Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy will be VIP speakers at a ceremony being held Saturday at the Normandy American cemetery, they will be in the prescence of other honored guests; a small (and dwindling) group of invasion veterans who will also attend the ceremony.
U.S. Army Garrison Brussels Soldiers were on hand to greet 25 World War II airborne veterans (15 former members of the 82nd and 10 former members of the 101st Airborne Divisions) and accompanying family members and friends who "landed" on the European continent May 28 as part of a tour.
The group is visiting sites associated with combat operations the former Soldiers fought in during the campaigns in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Brussels was only the arrival airhead for the tour, chosen by the tour operator for its convenient central location to the battle sites. The 25 veterans were to converge on Brussels International Airport via three different trans-Atlantic flights.
When Capt. Brian Sansom of USAG Brussels learned from a local airborne veteran that the group would be arriving and forming in Brussels airport as its tour start, he conceived the idea of having Brussels Soldiers in uniform to meet and greet each tranche of veterans and their accompanying family members as they deplaned.
"We wanted these veterans to feel special the moment they arrived in Europe," said Sansom. "We figured it would be a pleasant surprise for them if the first people they met as they exited the gantry would be representatives of today's generation of Soldiers, standing tall in uniform."
Since modern airport security controls do not permit uncredentialed individuals in such controlled spaces, Sansom asked the garrison's Host Nation Police Liaison officer, Mike Pain, to obtain special, one-time access for the Brussels troops.
"Mike worked his magic, and the police came through for us and granted us special passes. We really appreciated their very willing support," said Sansom.
A pleasant surprise for the veterans, to be sure, but also a pleasure for the Soldiers. Brussels Military Policeman, Spec. Anthony Arnold, is himself a combat veteran of a later conflict [Iraq].
Arnold is passionately interested in military history. "It was really great to meet and talk to these veterans of (operations) OVERLORD and MARKET GARDEN and the Battle of the Bulge - all things I've only read about in books. These guys were actually there!"
For their part, the veterans were delighted with the totally unexpected greeting committees. "Doc" Blaney, at 84, one of the younger veterans, had been a medic with the 326th PIR of the 101st Airborne. "It was so nice to see these Soldiers decked out in their Class A (uniforms)," he said.
The three tranches arrived at separate, staggered, times. In addition to escorting their honored visitors to Customs, pushing some of them in wheelchairs and helping them claim their baggage, the Brussels Soldiers had time to listen to some of their stories.
Daryle Whitfield, a still-big 87-year-old former machine gunner in Company F, 505th PIR of the 82nd Airborne, and native of Picayune, Miss., asked: "Do you guys know about the paratrooper whose chute was caught up on the steeple of that church in St. Mere Eglise, France' Well, I was the next guy in the stick after him."
Arnold, the military history buff, later said, "It was very humbling to listen to Mr. Whitfield and get to meet this living connection to D-Day."
Most of the veterans had made repeated visits to their old battle sites in years past, but not all. For Robert Herriot, once of the 327th PIR of the 101st Airborne, of Friendship, Wisc., and now in a wheelchair, this was his first visit back to the European continent since the war years.
"I left a lot of friends here, and I wanted to see them," he said.
The Brussels Soldiers got their guests and baggage to the two waiting tour buses, and said their farewells. Arnold has plans to be on leave in Normandy on June 6 and hopes to meet the vets there again on that date.
Spec. Joshua Haines, also a Brussels MP and also an Iraq combat veteran, summed up the encounter. "Meeting these guys makes you realize you're part of Army history," he said.