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Viewpoint: Remember the heroes of D-Day

On May 26, 1943, Red Wing high school senior Richard Ekholm celebrated his 18th birthday and days later walked across the Sheldon Auditorium stage in cap and gown. Just two months later, he boarded a Greyhound Bus destined for Fort Snelling where he joined the U.S. Army.

Ten months later, memories of these seminal events seemed a lifetime away as the S.S. George W. Lively dropped anchor near Omaha Beach, uniting Ekholm with the nearly 73,000 Americans (among 156,000 Allied forces) determined to drive Nazi forces back toward Germany.

On D-Plus 3, three days after the landing in Normandy, the soldiers aboard George W. Lively headed for the beach. Ekholm, 84, recounts his memories: "[Fellow soldier] Ray Robbiani was saying, 'Hail Mary, full of grace, blessed be the friends of your work.' Hy Rosenfeld was reciting the 'Act of Contrition' from the Torah, and I was reciting the 'Apostles Creed.' I did not recite the 'Lord's Prayer,' as I did not want to ask for anything. All I wanted was to say that my belief in God was heartfelt."

On Saturday, President Obama will mark the 65th anniversary of D-Day by visiting Normandy American Cemetery in northern France, home to the graves of 9,387 Americans killed there and a memorial to the 1,557 still missing. Last week, I had the honor of visiting the Normandy American Cemetery, which sits atop a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach and the English Channel from which U.S. troops launched the June 6, 1944 D-Day invasion. Joined by Senators Richard Burr (N.C.), Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), and John Thune (S.D.) at the Memorial Day ceremony, I helped lay a wreath in honor of those American service members who gave their lives to make possible the liberation of Europe in World War II.

The ceremony was much like ceremonies at cemeteries across America, flags at half-staff, bands playing Taps, memorial speeches honoring those who died in combat, row upon row of white crosses. But there were differences, too: The flags were American and French, the military bands were American and French, the speeches were in English and French, and the thousands of white crosses and Stars of David stood over Americans buried in French soil. The French dignitaries who spoke paid homage to the fallen. They also thanked them and the American people for the huge sacrifices they made to liberate France and destroy the Nazi menace to the world.

The ceremony at Normandy was especially moving and personal to me. My father, 1st Lieutenant John Kline, U.S. Army, landed on Omaha Beach on D-Plus 1. Thankfully, he survived the Battle of Normandy, but many of his friends did not. I know he would have been moved to tears at the sight of the thousands of white markers - row after row. I know he loved, admired, and thanked those fallen comrades.

Like my father, Ekholm safely returned home from World War II. Departing theater in December of 1945, Ekholm remembers mixed feelings as his ship passed the beaches of Normandy, where tens of thousands of Americans struggled through the churning surf amid a hail of gunfire. "I was on the deck all alone when we passed the beaches I had landed on one year ago," Ekholm said. "I got a lump in my throat and cried. I didn't know if I was saying goodbye to those who had fallen, or because I had lived through it, or was it so many memories and thoughts of, 'Why me, why was I permitted to live?' I still didn't know. I still don't know."

Each of the thousands of Americans who never returned home made the ultimate sacrifice to defend the nation they loved. We join the soldiers who lived to share their experience in mourning the loss of their fallen brethren.

"I am proud of my country and I am proud of my service," Ekholm said. "I think often of those who did not return."

We should, too.

On D-Day we honor all of our fallen heroes who never returned from Normandy. And we also thank those who - by the grace of God - made it safely home to the grateful nation they so heroically defended.

John Kline, a 25-year Marine Corps veteran who retired at the rank of Colonel, represents the Second District in the U.S. House of Representatives. He recently spent a week in France, Algeria, Greece and Morocco on a Congressional delegation trip for work related to the Intelligence Committee. In his fourth term in Congress, he is a member of the House Intelligence Committee, the Armed Services Committee, Ethics Committee and Education and Labor Committee.