by Rod Merkley
As a Soldier and a veteran I find myself drawn to the historic sights of the wars of the past. To me, it is important that we honor, remember, and respect the warriors that came before us and through these visits I have been motivated to do a little bit more with my life. One such visit was to the WWII cemeteries in Luxembourg.
At the time I was stationed at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. It was the hospital where injured American service members from Iraq and Afghanistan were evacuated to be stabilized and treated before being returned to duty downrange (Iraq and Afghanistan) or returning to the United States for additional care. At Landstuhl a Soldier could really feel the totality of the Global War on Terror as the planes landed at Ramstein Air Force Base nearly every day and the busses and ambulances ferried the wounded up the hill to the hospital. My two years as a mobilized reservist working as a medic at Landstuhl were some of the best and worst years of my life.
One of the perks of Landstuhl was its proximity to historic and cultural sites. If I wanted to go have dinner in France, for example, I could jump in my car and be eating a seven course French meal in just over an hour. Likewise the historic cities of Trier, Luxembourg, Heidelberg, and Mainz were all within a few hours’ drive. I could go visit a museum and see an original Gutenberg bible or visit the battlefield where the Battle of the Bulge took place on any weekend when I had some free time.
One winter day on that kind of a quick holiday trip I had an eye opening experience. It started with a visit to the Luxembourg American cemetery. I was saddened and touched as I walked among the headstones of over 5,000 young Americans. I love to watch war movies and am excited by the heroism depicted in them. But standing at that cemetery I was reminded of the true cost of war. Watching Band of Brothers you don’t always remember the sheer numbers of fallen Americans who never made it home. I thought about the young men who are buried in that beautiful place so far from their homes.
I paused for a moment at General Patton’s grave and thought about his presence on that hollowed ground. He died shortly after the war ended and, being a general, his body could have been sent home to the Untied States. But he requested to be buried with his “troopers.” As I stood by his grave, located at a place of honor in front of the rest of the graves, I imagined that I was a general standing before a great army of Soldiers. From Patton’s grave I looked over the 50 or so acres and remembered how lucky I was that great men, young and old, made the ultimate sacrifice for my freedom. Looking at that army of pure white marble crosses I was truly humbled.
As I was driving away I saw a sign for another cemetery that few Americans pay much attention to. Just a few minutes away from the often visited American cemetery is the Sandweiler German War Cemetery. The contrast between the two was stark and haunting. Where the American cemetery had beautiful white marble headstones, the German cemetery had darker gray granite ones. Where in the American cemetery each headstone represented one fallen Soldier, in the German cemetery each headstone represented several. Where the American cemetery engendered a feeling of awe and respect for the young men who died defending freedom, the German cemetery engendered a feeling of pity and sadness for young men who died for nothing. Where a beautiful monument to the American victory overlooks the American cemetery, a massive, stark, rough-hewn cross overlooks the German graves. That enormous cross drew my attention and my thoughts to the enormity of the loss that the German cemetery represented.
I read how over 10,000 Germans buried at that cemetery were relocated from other sites located all over Luxembourg, often they were relocated from mass graves. I was amazed by how many of the headstones did not bear a name; just an inscription indicating that an unknown German Soldier was buried there.
All my life I have been taught to hate the Nazis. I was taught about their atrocities and crimes. But there at that cemetery I gained a kind of sad respect for the individual German Soldiers. True, their cause was unjust, but I had to wonder how different they were from me. Of the 10,000 fallen warriors in that cemetery, how many of them were truly evil and how many of them were just normal everyday people who were drafted into serving their country? It was an powerful moment when I, an American Soldier, shed a tear for those young German Soldiers. In my mind I tried to honor their memory and sacrifice without honoring their cause.
So if you are ever in Luxembourg, go to the American cemetery and visit the graves of our brave heroes. Then go to the German cemetery and stand by that huge granite cross and reflect on the cost of war. It just might change your view on the world as it did mine.
Rod Merkley spent over ten years as a medic in the Army Reserves. During that time he was mobilized for two years to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany and deployed once to Iraq. He is currently studying clinical psychology as a 2LT in the Army Health Professions Scholarship Program and plans on serving as a psychologist in the Army after graduation. He writes short fiction and non-fiction about both his experiences in the Army and the psychological impact of war on the young men and women who fight it.