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Lessons Learned at a French-American Cemetery

Over 10,000 servicemembers dead. 10,489, to be exact. 

As I gazed across endless fields dotted with precise rows of grave markers, I choked back a sob. My husband looked at me. It wasn’t as if I knew any of the dead or was related in some way. But still…each grave signified someone’s husband, son, brother, grandchild, uncle, cousin, friend…

I could barely take in this visual reminder of the loss of life. We were attending the Memorial Day ceremonies at the Lorraine American Cemetery in St. Avold, France, where the largest number of American service members killed in Europe during WWII have been laid to rest. My husband and other military members from the base where we were stationed in Germany had been asked to represent the current American military. 

Under the mid-day looming grey skies that threatened rain, my husband and I had arrived late after taking several wrong turns on our drive through the small French villages along the way. Now we attempted to get ourselves in hand before we were seated with the “official party”–he straightening the jacket of his service dress, replete with ribbons denoting 23 years of an Air Force career, and me fumbling to pry open a stubborn umbrella over my suit jacket and freshly sprayed hair.

The day hadn’t been a smooth one so far. Due at the services by noon, I’d taken the better part of the morning to hunt through my collection of mom wear for appropriate clothing for an event like this, settling on a rarely worn matching suit jacket and skirt. When I realized my only pair of hose had a rip in them, I’d switched to pants, which put us even further behind. Then, we’d gotten a little lost as we followed the penciled directions to the cemetery. 

Distracted by our lateness and worried at being tardy for a commemoration put on by our allies and neighbors, we approached the cemetery nestled beside the sleepy French town and swung into an empty spot in the packed parking lot. Breathless, we strode up the hill to where we could see the crowd gathering–well, as fast as people can rush when they’re in military service dress (him) and not often worn high heels (me).

The thought crossed my mind that it seemed a bit humid to be outdoors in that type of attire, and I was already looking forward to plans later that day that didn’t involve dressing up. We hurried around the corner of a low stone wall and came face to face with rolling hills that flanked fields upon fields of our countrymen slumbering beneath the green sod.

Thoughts of messed up hairdos, arriving late, even future plans fell away. We both took in the scene for a moment, the need for hurry forgotten. On each grave fluttered two small flags, one American and one French, placed there earlier by schoolchildren. As we were seated for the ceremony, I couldn’t take my eyes off the gleaming rows of marble crosses and Stars of David marking each resting place. Each one was someone, not a number. As a military spouse, one of my greatest nightmares was the thought of losing my own husband to war. And yet, here the earth offered up a stark reminder of what had happened so many years before, pleading that we not forget this loss. 

Etched on the chapel wall at the Lorraine Cemetery are the words: 








Some images from the Lorraine American Cemetery in St. Avold, France. Taken by me in 2009.

The cause for which they died shall live…

Trite words? To those whose family members lie under the ground in Lorraine, I’m certain they are full of meaning. To the other hundreds of thousands of families who’ve received the knock at the door, a call, or a telegram with the worst news possible, that their loved one is the latest casualty, it means everything. 

To those of us left behind is assigned the task of remembering. To not let their sacrifice be forgotten. To resolve to live in freedom. 

But what does that look like? I won’t be fighting in any wars soon. How can I take the emotions and thoughts that struck me so strongly that day and apply them to my own life? How exactly do I live in freedom? How do I really live?

I can advocate for those who are weaker.

Most of the dead buried at Lorraine were killed while driving Nazi forces away from the city of Metz, France. They died defending those who needed help and who were unable to defeat the enemy alone. 

In my life at home, church, work, even out and about running errands, I can keep my eyes open for someone who could use a defender. Whether it’s real defense, an actual safe place, or something as small as an encouraging word or a smile, Lord, keep my eyes open to those who could use the strength of someone else to lean on for a time. 

“We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone” (1 Thessalonians 5:14).

I can walk in truth and strength, without fear.

No apologies. Setting boundaries is important, as is keeping the enemy from my doorstep. I may not be fighting a physical enemy, but this one is real, too. Knowing that I’m on the right side gives me strength to guard my thoughts, control what I allow in front of my eyes, or even what I listen to or what I choose to speak aloud. I also know that I cannot let my guard down, for the enemy would love to find an easy way in and cause destruction. It’s a constant battle. 

“We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). 

The French Men’s Choir singing “Amazing Grace” and “Glory, Glory Hallelujah.”

I can love without hesitation.

Life is short.

We all say that without thought. Yet seeing the grave inscriptions at the Lorraine American Cemetery was a jolting reminder of how young most of the soldiers are who are buried there. They had lives, fiancés, wives, children, families back home. I’m certain most of them thought they had years in front of them, had made plans for when they would return home, and expected to live out their days. 

The hard truth, “we all know that we’re dying but none of us live like we believe it,” is something that comes to mind. None of us are guaranteed another tomorrow. I am reminded to take the time to let those around me know how important they are to me and never let an opportunity pass when I could say, “I love you.” 

“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).

After that day at the Lorraine Cemetery, I of course went back to my regular life and got too quickly caught up in daily checklists, meetings, and the hundreds of little worries and tasks that make up any day. But every so often, I would stop and remember. I’d remember the sacrifice. Remember what they’d given. Remember their families, who had to learn to carry on without the ones they loved.

And with my husband having served on active duty and now our oldest son doing the same, we see firsthand what that life is like for the families left behind, and are well aware of the sacrifices that continue to be made by our military, the lives forever changed, the bodies scarred, the hearts forever altered.

But even now, years later, thrums the reminder,  

The cause for which they died shall live…

I will live. Will you?

memorial day at a french-american cemetery

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Hi, I'm Jen!

As a military spouse of three decades and now the mom of an active duty son, my hope is to support you in your own military life. You’ll find help for your military marriage, deployments, PCS moves, and more!