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U.S. soldiers participating in the 70th Anniversary of D-Day include eight historical units: 82nd Airborne Division, 101st Airborne Division, 75th Ranger Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, 4th Infantry Division, 4/25th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 29th Infantry Division and 1-507th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
Other participating units include: the 173rd Airborne Brigade leading Task Force Normandy, elements of 21st Theater Sustainment Command, 409th Combat Service Support Brigade, 529th Military Police Salute Battery, 30th Medical Brigade, Special Operations Command Europe, U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command and U.S. Army Europe Band.
When throngs of people converge along the beaches of Normandy, France, to mark the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings, U.S. soldiers will be there, in dozens of ceremonies and many of them in the most dramatic spectacle on the calendar.
About 600 U.S. paratroopers and allies will drop from the sky over Normandy in a multinational jump commemorating the airborne operation of the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions in the area of Sainte-Mere-Eglise.
For U.S. Army Europe, the occasion is momentous, the commander told Army Times.
"It is an honor for me to be here for the 70th anniversary of one of the greatest military operations ever undertaken," said Lt. Gen. Donald Campbell. "D-Day gave birth to modern multinational operations and led to partnerships and bonds that we enjoy and continue to cultivate and maintain today."
He said this is a time to look forward as well as back.
"In today's operational environment, maintaining relationships with allies is more important than ever," Campbell said. "As we honor the historical significance of such sacrifice on a grand scale for the noble cause of freedom, we must continue to maintain ready forces and strategic access in Europe. D-Day is a stark reminder of the importance of friends and allies."
Soldiers in Europe and around the U.S. are taking part by invitation. The invitation started with French officials who asked for U.S. troops to participate in commemorating the World War II operation in Normandy. U.S. European Command and U.S. Army Europe have worked to support U.S. participation, coordinating with civic and military leadership in the Norman region, said Lt. Col. Craig Childs, public affairs officer for USAREUR. Budget constraints limited the number of soldiers who could go, he said.
"We've still managed to schedule support to over 30 French-led ceremonies touching 14 communities from Omaha Beach to Utah Beach," he said. They will also host the parachute jump and the D-Day ceremony at the American Cemetery in Colleville.
U.S. soldiers will provide color guards and honor guards, stand in formations, bands and buglers will play and, in a joint effort, aircraft flyovers are planned at some locations, Childs said.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Maj. Adam Hallmark, spokesman for 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, which is sending 21 soldiers who will participate in ceremonies through the week and the airborne operation on Sunday.
"We're honored that the French government invited anyone over, and the U.S. Army invited different units to participate and we were one of those," said Lt. Col. Sean Ryan, spokesman for the 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kansas, which is sending 25 soldiers, mostly from 2nd Brigade. "It's a big honor that the Big Red One was invited."
"These soldiers are hand picked because we definitely want the best and brightest to represent Fort Riley," Ryan said.
In the days before the trip to France, soldiers were practicing ceremonies and polishing uniforms to be ready.
"They are making sure their uniforms are outstanding, making sure of their formations, they're prepping for that," Ryan said.
D-Day wedding vows
Two NCOs coming from Alaska will be on a special mission.
Sgt. 1st Class Garret Brunton and Sgt. 1st Class Sesireehana Brunton, husband and wife, both with 4th IBCT, 25th ID, are heading to France and hope they both will jump with other paratroopers on Sunday. But before that, they have an event even more exclusive.
The couple plans to renew their wedding vows at the chapel in Sainte-Mere-Eglise on Friday, the anniversary of D-Day and also their own wedding anniversary, Garret Brunton said.
They met when they were both drill sergeants and married in June 2011. They've conducted airborne operations together, deployed together and were one of the first married couples to do combat patrols together in Afghanistan, he said.
They were married at a staff duty desk, minutes before going on a 12-mile road march, and never really had a honeymoon, Garret Brunton said. When soldiers from the 4th were invited to go to France, they saw that honeymoon taking shape.
"We thought, what better opportunity, because Normandy is kind of the pinnacle of the airborne community, that's a big day for us when it comes to our lineage as paratroopers, so we thought it would be great to include that in our personal lives," Garret Brunton said. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, especially with the 70th anniversary."
Soldiers will have the chance to meet veterans traveling to France. About 400 veterans are expected on the monument at the American Cemetery ceremony on Friday.
"Spending time with the vets is one of the most rewarding aspects of this mission," Childs said. Vets will be attending many of the ceremonies that our soldiers will be participating in and we know that the young and old will definitely seek one another out."
"It makes me remarkably proud to know that we will likely see a significant number of D-Day vets coming to celebrate this year," Campbell said. "We all need to take advantage of this unique opportunity to visit with these heroes."
The theme of this year's event, "Honoring the Past, Securing the Future" is inspired by the veterans and their sacrifices, Childs said.
"We can learn so very much from these heroes and we strive to carry the torch forward in a worthy manner," he said.
Soldiers today are bound to feel the impact of what soldiers did 70 years ago, Campbell and Ryan said.
"You get hit with the fact that these soldiers were amazing, the things that they did, storming the beaches," Ryan said. "We're fighting a different war now, we're not fighting an enemy, for the most part, that we can see. They were, it was hand-to-hand combat, it was amazing what they accomplished. It was a great time in U.S. history because everyone was behind it. Soldiers flocking to sign up, and the things they did were amazing ... that's why they were called the 'greatest generation.' "
Those soldiers paved the way for what soldiers can accomplish today, Campbell said.
"We (those currently wearing the uniform and U.S. Army Europe itself) remain indebted to the veterans of the 'greatest generation' who not only served to protect and defend our nation, but were part of a global force to defend peace, liberate the oppressed and strengthen ties with an emerging alliance," Campbell said. "The selfless actions by all allies on D-Day continue to resonate 70 years later as U.S. forces in Europe remain steadfast in our commitment to our European partners and NATO."