The fancy invitation to a Memorial Day event at the governor's mansion arrived in the mail the day that Charles J. Harris, a World War II veteran who lost his left arm on the beach at Normandy a few days after D-Day, was buried.
His daughter, Michelle Burke, picked up the phone to RSVP for him anyway.
The 91-year-old lawyer only recently had begun to identify more with being a veteran, reconnecting at reunions with his fellow soldiers and donning a hat emblazoned with the 29th Division, his Army unit. His daughter knew he would have wanted to go to the picnic.
"To me there was something ironic if not divine that we received the invitation, and I just thought someone should be there to represent him," Burke said. "These guys deserve whatever they get in terms of blessings and honors."
Her family will be among those attending ceremonies with Gov. Martin O'Malley today at the Government House in Annapolis, commemorating the 65th anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 1944, when Allied troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of French coastline. O'Malley also plans to travel to France next month with representatives from the 29th Division, the only National Guard unit that landed on D-Day.
Veterans from the greatest generation will join the current one at today's event, which includes a welcome-home crab cake feast to celebrate the return from Iraq earlier this year of the 224th Area Support Medical Company of the Maryland Army National Guard. O'Malley had promised the troops Maryland crab during their deployment, but his office couldn't find a way to safely ship it over such a long distance.
"The courage shown by the guys from the 29th Division is the same courage you see from the young men and women going to Iraq and Afghanistan today," O'Malley said in an interview. "They deserve our total respect and our total support, both when they carry out their mission but also when they come home."
O'Malley also will travel to Bosnia and Estonia next month to meet with National Guard soldiers stationed there as part of a program that fosters partnerships between U.S. states and new democracies. Maryland's ties in Estonia date to the fall of the Soviet Union, and in Bosnia to ethnic conflicts that ravaged that country in the 1990s.
The 29th Division Association, a veterans group, has coordinated a trip to Normandy every five years that previous governors, including Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and William Donald Schaefer, have attended. This year, it has planned ceremonies at the American cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer and the National Guard monument to D-Day veterans.
Among those attending will be James L. Lockhart, who not only witnessed D-Day at Normandy with the 29th Division but also the Battle of the Bulge, one of the last major Nazi offensives against the Allies fought over the winter months in the mountains of Belgium. Lockhart is the kind of man that Robert L. Finn feels compelled to honor.
Finn is commander of the 29th Division Association, and though he is a Vietnam Veteran, has been to Normandy several times to pay tribute to those who fought there.
"You form bonds with the division and those people who came before you," he said.
Burke, whose father died recently at age 91 of a blood infection, said communing with other veterans in recent years not only caused many unspoken memories to resurface but also helped her and her family understand the experience he had rarely discussed.
"In our minds, he was a war hero," she said, adding that he earned his high school equivalency degree while in the hospital recovering from his war injuries and went on to become a lawyer.
The story of Harris' death was a poignant one for Army Brig. Gen. James Adkins, the state adjutant general and secretary of veterans affairs. "That gives you a feeling for the number of veterans we are losing each day from World War II."
He called the ceremonies in Annapolis and Normandy "an opportunity to reflect on their service and make sure that they are never forgotten" and to "watch the passing of the torch among generations."