“Lead a good and cheerful life. One of awe in nature, … and one of focus in work. This is what I hope you find.”
– World War II Veteran Carl Petersen LST 495
A 12-year-old from Indiana, I recall the extreme cold, rain, and wind as I arrived in the little town of Rots in Normandy on June 3rd, 2004. My French host mother came to pick me up from our bus and as she leaned in to kiss my cheeks as a welcome, I watched in shock as her umbrella immediately inverted and flew up into the sky. I broke into laughs and her calm response assured me: “Ah, c’est la Normandie” (ah, this is Normandy). I thought, “As this weather is common, I can’t imagine what it would have been like for the soldiers when they arrived on June 6th, 1944.” But just as the soldiers when they arrived to Normandy, my arrival in 2004 would mark the beginning of a powerful journey that has shaped my aspirations, goals, and those goals of several family members. I encourage the readers to travel to Normandy–speak to veterans, explore Normandy’s vast history–but you mustn’t delay, as our heroes are nearing their 95th birthdays and now is the time. And if you enjoy this article, consider contacting me. I would be honored to engage further. You too may discover how Normandy’s history can help you connect with our global past in critical ways to shape our future.
My name is Ashley Mae Conard, and in 2004 I joined ten American students at the 60th Anniversary D-Day Commemoration in Normandy, France, chosen to represent the 2nd and 3rd generations after World War II and invited to return every 5 years until the 100th anniversary of World War II. I became a US Ambassador for the D-Day Commemoration through an international program called Relais de la Memoire, during a partnership with my school, the International School of Indiana. Representing Germany, France, Canada, and the United Kingdom, ten students from each country stood alongside my United States counterparts and me to learn, uphold, and relay what we have gleaned from a critical time in history. As ambassadors to our respective countries, we hold and attend official commemorations to honor and engage with local people and veterans to discuss diplomatic affairs and ways to foster an even stronger, global community.
In 2009, I returned to Normandy one year before completing high school with a much greater understanding of my opportunity. Then, in 2014, I returned after graduating from undergraduate studies; and In 2019, I had the privilege to return for the 75th Anniversary D-Day Commemoration, as a PhD candidate in graduate school. I had the fortune to invite my sister, Chelsea, in 2014 and my mom, Lisa, in 2019. With each trip, I have discovered more about what this opportunity means, I filled a journal with new discoveries, revelations, facts, and conversations. The pages capture the friendships, war stories, and heightened global awareness I have developed in these past years. The pages detail the messages of peace gleaned from conversations and speeches given by World War II veterans and global leaders. Through my reflections, I could better capture the momentous lessons being given to me. Time and time again the most common feeling was one of awe, as I wrote in disbelief of each “Thank you” that I received from local people who had been liberated by US soldiers in western Normandy. Filling the pages of my journal always followed days of reflection, as I processed the shock that followed veterans’ stories of landing by parachute, turning to see their comrades shot out of the sky. Often my eyes would water as I would bear witness to their strength. As I summarize lessons for myself, I would like to now share some of the most important advice which resounded from most veterans and local people.
- Be proud to be a kind person.
- Hold on to your integrity and recognize it in others.
- Give all your focus and your best effort in what you pursue, and put it in context of the larger world.
- Most importantly, enjoy this life and seek out joy in each moment.
These heroes fought with the vision of a world worth saving, the current world, which now lies in our hands. I hope you consider taking this advice and know that you will honor those young women and men who gave their lives during one of the greatest tragedies and victories in world history. In this way you can strive to be whom these soldiers of World War II fought for.
As I stand on the same ground that held the bodies of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, I carry with me significant memories that have shaped who I am:
Returning in 2009, I had the honor to give 3 speeches in both French and English. In one of those speeches at Colleville Cemetery I talked about how we should extend this honor to be here and knowledge of the war to others in our home countries, and provided ideas on how to do so. This followed my raising of the American flag. That moment marks one of my life’s greatest honors. In some way I felt closer to being able to thank the 9380 soldiers buried there and I will forever hold this memory to represent my family members who fought in the war, and to stand with my country as part of a strong, international community. This year at Colleville with my mom, I gave a different speech. One urging us all to be kind, to not pass judgment, and recognize what power there is in compromise. I asked how we want to be remembered, as veterans of the greatest generation began to clap. I then sang our national anthem with other American ambassadors. Speeches from several officials completed the ceremony, with cheers and celebrations from humbled, dignified veterans.
Of all commemorations over the years in Normandy, etched in my brain is the voice of the Canadian Minister of Defense, Peter MacKay in 2009, at our “Capsule Ceremony”. This is a commemoration for us. Specifically, in 2004, all 50 Ambassadors from five nations added a note to a Golden Tree of tubes (see pictures below) describing our vision for ourselves and for the world, which we will open in 2044. I remember sitting right next to several veterans in the front row, and trying to sit as upright as they were. Mr. MacKay began his speech directed to the younger generation, elucidating the veterans’ importance in our lives today. He described the normal routines of everyday life: picking out clothes to wear, going to school, being involved in activities. He then lifted his hand and pointed to the sitting veterans and said, “These men fought and gave their lives to allow you to lead the kinds of lives you live today…You’re able to have such liberties and choose your own future because of what these veterans did for you.” I looked back up at the veterans as they sat with humility. I pictured them back on the beaches and shores where all infantrymen could only focus on their immediate duties- having ammunition, making it to the beaches, advancing their line, neutralizing the enemy- before even thinking about their goal of helping to liberate France, and the larger world. Their urgent decisions were what culminated in making a global difference.
Following Mr. MacKay’s speech, a now good friend of mine, Veteran John Harrison and I began a discussion. We talked about his career after the war, and he encouraged me to pursue a discipline that pulls my heartstrings as much as uses my brain. “Have a passion?” he asked. I stood straight, and told him that I enjoy biological puzzles and computers. “I like learning about how cells work together, and how the Fibonacci sequence helps us calculate the number of seeds in sunflowers.” He said that he could see me curing world illnesses later on. He said he was excited to read about my work and thanked me for my service… my service. In that moment I realized that in our everyday lives, as long as we work for the greater good, for others, and use our talents wisely, we will contribute to the “better world” that they fought for. Today I am following what I told Mr. Harrison. I am in a PhD program in Computational Biology at Brown University in applied math and biology. I have reunited with Mr. Harrison all 4 years that I have come to the D-Day commemorations in Normandy. He, like many other veterans are honored to hear from us. As time continues to pass for them, I encourage us all to sit and speak with our war veterans. They live a side of life few have seen, and many query.
Shaped by these memories and lessons, every 5 years I have returned home with the aspiration to embody this shared vision to work towards something bigger than myself and leave this world better than I found it. Many of these men did not want to fight, did not want to grow up so fast, did not want to kill, and did not want to die. Nevertheless they rose to the challenge. Through my ambassadorship with Relais de la Memoire, I believe I have more clearly aligned myself within our world’s large history to find a place for myself and rise to my own challenges. I am pursuing my passion for complex biological problems and solving them mathematically with the larger goal of enabling mankind to address epidemics, climate change, and build strong policy from our scientific findings.
My memories in Normandy with my family members are of the ones I cherish the most. It was enlightening to relive some of their awe moments, like peeking over the cliffs to see the vast beaches of sand as the waves crash on the shores of Omaha beach or going to Pointe-du-Hoc and navigating through inverted mountains where bombs crushed the cliffs; walking through little towns, braving the force of June’s cold wind; or sharing hugs and apple cider with my wonderful host family. The opportunity to have my family in Normandy with me brought my worlds together and I saw through their eyes, the joy and humility to receive a “thank you for liberating us” from local people who were children at the time of the war. They too saw the Allies’ strategy maps of coordinated attacks on June 6th, 1944. They too saw just how united we must be as nations to overcome unified challenges. Today those are issues including climate change, epidemics, and bigotry.
The soldiers fought to not only change the world for their children, but also for those they had not yet known, their grandchildren and great grandchildren. That is us. We are their vision and hope for a better world. So we should rise to the challenge. Indeed, our challenge may not be as drastic as fighting a war, but by focusing on our pursuits, we honor our veterans and fallen soldiers. For example, our group Relais de la Memoire promotes peace and unity among nations by learning and sharing the events of World War II with our communities, schools, and organizations. If you are reading this… that means you! Alive in the most peaceful time in history, I hope that we, as today’s youth, can continue to take part in this history through many international diplomacy programs such as Fulbright. The Fulbright Program spawned from World War II as a strong international diplomacy program to foster global understanding and collaboration. As Fulbrighters, we spend so much time thinking about “friends and family of Fulbright” and I had the great privilege of sharing this history and wonderful place with my own family. Consider encouraging your friends and family to engage in international diplomacy and collaboration programs such as Fulbright! Just as the soldiers fought for a better world, the Fulbright program shares that vision and is working to maintain international peace and prosperity.
I had the opportunity to pursue my Fulbright in Belgium, a country with a large international community and strong science programs. I had the privilege to learn from and work with Dr. Tom Lenaerts in the Machine Learning Group (MLG) at the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium. At MLG, I used machine learning, cooperative game theory, structural bioinformatics, and parallel computing to uncover binding specificities in a protein domain, with the larger goal to use this knowledge for drug design. I worked alongside scientists from Belgium, Spain, Holland, Germany, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Canada, and France, and learned the imperativeness of scientific collaboration across countries to achieve the best results. The importance of this international work environment reminded me of my work with Relais de la Memoire, and the impact of the international collaboration. I am convinced that only by harnessing universal knowledge will we be able to effectively address hard problems like Alzheimer’s, and create a global society as envisioned by the soldiers of WWII.
Senator Fulbright formed the Fulbright Program at the end of World War II, converting the excess military funds into a diplomatic program to promote cultural exchange and understanding between nations. My experience in Normandy drew me to the Fulbright Program and I hope we can all work together to preserve and secure the Fulbright Program for upcoming generations. I encourage you to support the Fulbright program and enhance global cooperation by attending this year’s Fulbright Conference and Advocacy Day. Our efforts to promote peace and unity will allow us to tackle some of our globes most significant challenges, such as climate change and Ebola, for the next generations. As we thank the greatest generation, we now build our legacies. It is our time to be remembered and advocate for a safer, more prosperous world.
I accredit the Relais de la Memoire with helping me align myself with our world’s history and identify my purpose. I want to encourage those reading this to take part of this history, our history. Go to Normandy. Read and travel. Talk to veterans. In fact, I plan to meet with a World War II Veteran who I met in Normandy this year, Carl Petersen. I shared a quote from him at the opening of this article. He lives close to me, and I look forward to speaking with him further.
I have been invited to return every five years until the 100th anniversary of World War II, and I am committed to giving my best effort to accomplish this goal. Returning to Normandy, I further my close relationships with locals and maintain contact with world leaders and veterans. I believe this to be important because learning from the wise and experienced could help this generation produce leaders who can identify and tackle the world’s most challenging problems. The recurring reunions in Normandy have included new faces, with other group of young people joining us in the celebration of our world’s history and the commitment to preserve its peaceful future. If any of you have been touched by this article, please contact me. I would be honored to engage further.
Each commemoration has unexpected adventures, such as getting to drive a jeep around in Arromanches. Or getting see the Patrouille de France and then talking to them during a traffic jam. Chelsea asked if they ever get nervous and some answered and replied that they turn the fear into excitement. One of my favorite experiences was being able to learn about and board different landing crafts and Ramp-fronted “Higgins boats” originally designed by Andrew Higgins from Nebraska.
Alongside my return to Normandy this year, the date marks just over a year after the death of my beautiful, brilliant, and kind little sister, Aubrey, who died in a car accident last April. Her passing followed the death of my grandfather, and was followed by that of my dear friend. While I was a few years older than the soldiers to experience death, I feel connected to them as I can begin to relate to a large degree of loss in my youth. I am reminded that life is fragile, and time is both precious and uncertain. These very recent happenings have oriented me with a different perspective on the journey of life, and brought me closer to the main message shared from veterans I have had the pleasure of knowing: enjoy this life and seek out joy in each moment (#4 from our bullet point list). Be in the moment to focus and enjoy your journey, and that is how we can all honor the men and women who gave their lives for our freedom.
I had the opportunity to meet British army veteran Less Darlingson at the British Cemetery after a ceremony. He said he was happy to meet Americans and said he actually fought on Omaha, alongside the Americans. He explained how most tanks were released too early, thus into the ocean, which contributed largely to the high number of casualties on Omaha that June 6th morning, 1944. I handed him one of my American flag pins (see last picture, bottom right) and thanked him strongly for his service. I will never forget him looking up at me and as his voice quivered, he said “I will hold this near and dear to my heart forever”. They truly are the greatest generation.
This is an excerpt of a poem by Robert Laurence Binyon, said by the British military:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
–Ashley Mae Conard
Fulbright to Belgium, 2015
*Top photo: These Black Daggers are a US Army Special Operations Command Parachute Team, who reenacted the story of John Steele and his 82nd Airborne Division as they liberated Sainte-Mère-Eglise on June 6th, 1944. They are actively recruiting all around the United States. Please follow them on Instagram (@BlackDaggersPT) and Facebook (BlackDaggers).