MAASTRICHT, Netherlands -- North Carolina National Guard Soldiers escorted four WWII veterans and their families to 75th-anniversary liberation celebrations September 11-17.
The veterans served in the 30th Infantry Division, known as Old Hickory, and helped to liberate Belgium and the Netherlands from German occupation in September 1944.
Throughout the week, the Old Hickory veterans were honored with ceremonies, dinners, hugs and a parade through Maastricht in the Limburg Province.
The Soldiers and WWII veterans enjoyed the festivities, as well as the smaller, more personal moments.
"The most emotional part for me was when George Ham visited the spot where his battle buddy was killed," said Maj. Kevin Hinton, deputy commander for the NCNG's Recruiting and Retention Battalion. "George served in Charlie Company, 120th Infantry Regiment, 30th Infantry Division, and that's who I served with in Iraq in 2004."
Hinton, vice president of the 30th Infantry Division Association, said he felt a connection to what the WWII veteran was going through.
"Part of George's emotion is that he was supposed to be that guy, but he switched positions," Hinton said. "There's probably some survivor's guilt on his part, and I've been there. I understand that feeling."
The N.C. Guard Soldiers were all veterans of the same unit, having served in Iraq with the now reorganized 30th Armored Brigade Combat Team, and acted as representatives of the Guard and the 30th Infantry Division Association, a membership group for veterans of the unit.
The trip affected not only the 30th Infantry Division veterans but also currently serving Soldiers who were part of the liberation celebrations.
"It gives value to my own sense of service and what I'm doing now by serving," said Col. Wes Morrison, the North Carolina Army National Guard chief of staff. "I see that folks appreciate, across the world, what the United States Army has done for the world at different times. Your service means something and it means something to not just Americans, but people across the world."
The group was able to visit the same places where the 30th Infantry Division fought back the German occupation and other places where they were able to rest after almost 90 days of being on the front lines.
One of those places was the Rolduc Abbey in Kerkrade, a rest center for Soldiers after the liberation. While there, some of the current Soldiers took a photo in the same courtyard where a formation of Old Hickory Soldiers took a photo 75 years ago.
Hinton hoped this trip would help build a bond between the new generation of Old Hickory veterans and the people of the Limburg province to continue the tradition.
"It's a part of the history of the 30th and the North Carolina National Guard," Hinton said. "We need to educate our young Soldiers on the history of what the 30th has done. When the WWII veterans are long gone, the U.S. and the Netherlands will still exist, and we have to maintain this and remember what they did. Like someone said in one of the speeches, the beginnings of the European Union started with the liberation and the desire for Europe to never go through that again."
As the Soldiers, veterans, and their families prepared to travel home, many were heard to say "see you in five years," anticipating the 80th anniversary of the liberation.
Even though the WWII veterans may no longer be able to make the trip, Morrison thought it was important the tradition continues.
"If we honor the veterans of the past, we bring more value to the service that we have today," Morrison said. "You wear the uniform in the current unit, you're wearing Old Hickory. You now have the responsibility of that lineage and history of that unit on your back. We can't let them down. The history they created here, the high bar, high standard for performance of duty and what they did here, 75 years ago is something we have to keep in the back of our minds all the time."