Rob Schwarzwalder is Senior Vice President at Family Research Council. This article appeared in The Star-Ledger on June 6, 2014.
When my uncle, Pfc. Walter Neske, landed in Normandy on June 6, 1944, he was far away from his youth in Ridgewood, N.J.
Walter was part of a large family of 11 children, one of whom was my mother. Ridgewood is about as American as a small town can get; to this day, to visit the town is like strolling into a postcard of 1950s suburbia. Even walking down the sidewalk is a restful experience. No doubt Walter's large, church-going, hard-working family gave him a sense of place, the assurance that he belonged. Not a bad way to start life.
Walter was 20 years old on D-Day, an infantryman in Company C of the 26th Infantry Regiment ("The Blue Spaders") which, as part of the First Division ("Big Red One"), stormed into France and began the assault on Hitler's tyranny. His thoughts on wading ashore under fire are not known, but fierce determination was undoubtedly at their core.
Walter already had been wounded during the invasion of Sicily, and would be wounded twice more following D-Day - the last time, fatally.
Years earlier, my father and another uncle had trained in the 26th, a regiment composed largely of boys from New Jersey and New York. From Asia to Alaska and the European theater, millions of American youths defeated two aggressive military powers simultaneously in what indisputably is the greatest feat of arms in history.
Walter fought through northern France and Belgium. He was wounded a second time not long after D-Day and awarded his second Purple Heart. Sent back to England to recuperate, he was placed into combat again after a few weeks.
In a letter home, he wrote that he felt like he and his comrades were doing something important; he had been overwhelmed by the welcome they had received in the Belgium they were then liberating from years of Nazi oppression, and the magnitude of what they were doing made a profound impression on him.
He and his colleagues in the attacking unit of the 26th won a rare Presidential Unit Citation for outstanding performance in combat.
Walter understood the stakes for which he and his comrades were playing. In another letter, he wrote, "I've seen what Hitler has done and he has to be stopped. If one of his bullets has my name on it, that's the way it will have to be."
On Sept. 13, 1944, he stepped on a landmine as he and his fellow "citizen soldiers" were attacking a German emplacement near Eupen, Belgium, just below the German border. According to the federal records of the engagement, Walter lived a few hours and then died of his wounds. He and his colleagues in the attacking unit of the 26th won a rare Presidential Unit Citation for outstanding performance in combat.
His senior photo in his high school yearbook has this legend describing him: "I know him of a noble mind, but a lion in the field." I have this moving and apt description, with his photograph and his Purple Heart, displayed in my office.
Walter would have been 91 this December, had he lived. Who knows what kind of life he would have had - faith, marriage, children, education, career, travel - in the decades since the end of the war. But he and tens of thousands of others like him paid the ultimate price so that we can sit in security and liberty in an America that remains what Lincoln called "the last, best hope of earth."
Walter's name is inscribed on two monuments, one in his hometown for Ridgewood's "honored dead," and the other just across from the White House - the First Division "Big Red One" memorial just off Pennsylvania Avenue. His memory is inscribed in the hearts of his many nieces and nephews still with us, including, of course, me. He has been a hero to me all of my life, and always will be.
As is obvious, I am proud of my uncle Walter and the others in my family who helped place Nazism and Japanese imperialism on the refuse-pile of history. Yet his story is only one of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who sacrificed their health, their personal dreams, and even their lives in a great cause. As our country reflects on this 70th anniversary of D-Day, may we cherish our freedom all the more as we contemplate what it has cost, not just in the Second World War but throughout our history, including the past 12 years in Afghanistan and Iraq.
We do not worship the fallen nor romanticize their lives. But as we think of them, let us do so with bowed heads, humble gratitude, and the pride that we are, with them and substantially because of them, fellow citizens of the greatest nation in all of history. May we rededicate ourselves to keeping it that way.