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What a WWI cemetery in France means to every Wisconsinite

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What a WWI cemetery in France means to every Wisconsinite

Jun 08, 2024 | 6:00 am ET
By Dan Barkhuff Naveed Shah
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What a WWI cemetery in France means to every Wisconsinite
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U.S. Marines take part in the Memorial Day ceremony at Aisne-Marne American Cemetery on May 26, 2013. The cemetery is located outside the woods of Belleau, the historic battlegrounds of The Battle of Belleau Wood. The U.S. Marines and their French counterparts marked the 95th anniversary of the battle that year, commemorating their fallen comrades. (Sgt. Tatum Vayavananda | U.S. Marine Corps)

Machine gun fire, sharpshooters, barbed wire, bayonets, bombs of every kind and finally, fist-to-fist fighting. That was the Battle of Belleau Wood where the German infantry and U.S. Marines clashed outside Paris a little more than a century ago.

It was a turning point in World War I, a key component of Marine Corps lore, and the final resting place of 2,289 Americans, now buried in the nearby Aisne-Marne Cemetery. One hundred and seventeen Wisconsinites are there beneath peaceful, well-kept graves.

On Sunday, as part of a commemorative D-Day trip to Europe, America’s current president will visit. The president before him skipped a trip to Aisne-Marne, choosing instead to slander the heroes.

More than 100,000 courageous Marines, soldiers, sailors, nurses and other military personnel who sacrificed their lives for freedom during World War I and World War II are laid to rest in sacred sites like Aisne-Marne. Overall, there are 25 overseas American military cemeteries, with 4,595 Wisconsinites commemorated.

As veterans of the 9/11 wars, we reflect on these distant deaths from the comforts of our homes in America. How do we honor those who fell in a French forest, a Pacific Island or an Iraqi alleyway?

Often those who go to war say with their actions what they do not say with their words. Throughout our nation’s history, American brothers and sisters have spoken by fighting battles abroad so we could live in a country free of such threats.

We try to honor them, first by recognizing that their sacrifice can never be repaid. Then we try to accept the Sisyphean task of living a “good life” and accepting the challenge of being citizens who honor the fallen by at least trying to live with moral courage.

This means speaking truth not only when difficult, but especially when it is clearly hard, when it is not in our interest, and when it makes us reevaluate prior loyalties.

For these reasons we have forged a coalition of veterans from different political parties and diverse backgrounds to ask Democrats, Republicans and Independents for a simple pledge — honor the 2024 election results and renounce violence in what is shaping up to be the most consequential campaign season in our lifetime.

In Wisconsin, where our organizations have more than 1,400 members combined, we veterans are a force at the polls and comprise about 5%  of the state overall. We and our military families seek a commander in chief who will have a steady hand at the helm and who is guided by humanitarian values.

Late last month in North Carolina, which houses America’s largest military base, we attended the Republican state convention and requested their pledge. The GOP’s presumed presidential candidate, Donald Trump, is actively condoning and promoting violence on the campaign trail. They did not pledge and threw us out of their gathering.

Which circles us back to the sacred resting place of Aisne-Marne Cemetery.

In 2018, bad weather stopped Trump’s helicopter trip there. The Secret Service, according to accounts of those in attendance, told him they could drive instead. Trump is alleged to have said he didn’t want to visit the cemetery because it was “filled with losers.”

The more than 1,800 Marines who died at Belleau Wood, he added, were “suckers” for getting killed.

That Trump has repeatedly disregarded the rule of law and disparaged veterans and the concept of service is well known. What is unknown is what the fallen heroes at Belleau Wood might have said about a man like Trump.