9/11-Era Rangers Don’t Forget The Greatest Generation

Alex Quade Freelance War Reporter
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(Editor’s Note:  Per  U.S. Army Special Operations Command embed guidelines, Alex Quade, who was embedded with the Rangers in this story, is now allowed to show these Operators’ faces, partial names as  listed on their nametags in public,  and share their stories; a PAO monitored every interview, to make sure there was no release of techniques, tactics or procedures.)

POINTE DU HOC, NORMANDY, FRANCE — Patriotism, service, sacrifice:  these are the themes one hears often during this 4th of July holiday weekend.  President Barack Obama gave specific examples of these themes, when he praised the “Greatest Generation” of veterans from World War Two and tied-in this current “9/11 Generation” of warriors and veterans, at the 70th Anniversary of D-Day, three weeks ago in Normandy, France.

“This generation — this 9/11 Generation of service members — they, too, felt something; they answered the same call; they said ‘I’ll go.’  And for more than a decade, they have endured tour after tour,” Obama said.

Then the President singled out one young Ranger in particular.

“Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg has served ten. I’ve told Cory’s incredible story before, most recently when he sat with my wife, Michelle, at the State of the Union Address. But it was here, at Omaha Beach, on the 65th anniversary of D-Day, where I first met Cory and his fellow Army Rangers, right after they made their own jump into Normandy.”

Five years ago, on the 65th anniversary of D-Day, I was an embedded reporter with Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg and his Ranger brothers, as they explored the windy cliffs of Normandy and explained what this place and this moment meant to them.

“The overall bigger picture is something incredible, like liberating another country.  I’m excited, you can’t replicate that feeling.  It’s so cool to come out here.  This is legitimately a once in a lifetime opportunity to come out, especially with some of these old vets out here, there’s this 2nd Ranger battalion guy who scaled Pointe du Hoc,” Ranger Remsburg said.

“You see this in movies.  ‘The Longest Day’, ‘Saving Private Ryan’, but until you actually walk here, you can’t truly appreciate what happened.  To think 65 years ago, this was a scene of complete & utter chaos,” Ranger Fogle said.

The elite, battle-hardened men shared their “human” side.  They called this place their “Mecca”.

“The impossible mission:  they kept trying to assault the cliffs, and everyone was getting wiped out.  Down on the beach they were like, ‘We have to get those cliffs’, and that’s where the phrase ‘Rangers Lead the Way’ comes from. He turned around and said, ‘Rangers lead the way!’  2nd & 5th came up, took a lot of losses, but they got it done,” Ranger Fogle explained.

Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsbug and his team honored their Ranger forefathers by scooping sand into Ziploc baggies to keep with them from Omaha Beach, and by running along the cliffs that morning.

“Ran up Omaha Beach, with no equipment on, just doing some PT, and we were smoked by the time we got to the top,” Ranger Lambert said.

Ranger Bruinsma chimed in:  “By time we got to top, we were like, ‘Damn!’”

“So here it’s even worse, you’ve got to put a grappling hook onto something and hoist yourself up while the enemy is shooting down,” Ranger Lambert added.

Ranger Bruinsma chimed back in:  “…Scale a hundred foot wall, get shot at the whole time, then come up here and kick their ass,” he said of their Ranger forefathers at the exact location.

Sgt.1st Class Cory Remsburg and his fellow Rangers said it’s just like today in other war zones, “… As soon as you’re there, and your buddies are going down, you don’t really think, it’s all the training and everything else, it’s just like today,” they said.

Ranger Struecker knows this first-hand.  He led a convoy under fire in Somalia during the so-called “Black Hawk Down” mission. An actor played him in the blockbuster movie.

“When people ask me what a Ranger is, it’s hard to define what a Ranger is, except by telling them what a Ranger does.  A Ranger is a man, who no matter what the obstacle is, will not fail to accomplish his mission.  And that really was born here at these cliffs,” Ranger Struecker said.

“Most Rangers today, will tell you, it is because of what these guys did here that they feel an obligation to live up to this history,” he added.

The Rangers honored the paratroopers who jumped into Normandy under fire on D-Day, too, with a tribute mass-parachute jump. Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg put the windy jump into perspective, while eating a French baguette.

“Really cool to think, looking around, to see the same thing these old dudes saw 65-years ago.  (But,) I didn’t have any combat equipment on or anything, I wasn’t getting shot at.  But still, Normandy’s gorgeous, but just to think of the other side of it, you know, you’re going to come down, take off your stuff and you’re going to liberate a country.  Pretty intense,” Ranger Remsburg said.

After their jump, Ranger Struecker “volunteered” his men to escort the VIPs onto the stage at the official D-Day Ceremony, including First Lady Michelle Obama, as well as the World War Two Ranger veterans.  The “9/11 Generation” stayed on stage during President Obama’s speech.

“The Rangers scaled the cliffs.  And by the end of the day, against all odds, the ground on which we stand was free once more,” Obama said.  Then he singled out one of the Ranger veterans.

“A story written by men like Anthony Ruggerio, an Army Ranger, who saw half of the men on his landing craft drown before it hit the beach, spent 3 hours in the freezing water.  Was one of only 90-Rangers to survive out of the 225 who were sent to scale the cliffs,” Obama said.

The 9/11 Generation Rangers described it afterwards.

“We were escorting some veterans to the stage.  They don’t get around because they’re 85. I escorted a Ranger there, who scaled Pointe du Hoc,” Ranger Lambert said.

Ranger Bruinsma chimed in: “He was the last Ranger to scale Pointe du Hoc, to go up it. Meeting the President was awesome, but pretty much the highlight for me, meeting him & the other 2-Rangers that were here,” he said of the D-Day Rangers.

Afterwards, the young Rangers were treated like rock stars.  French children clamored for their autographs.

“Normally don’t get that in the States,” one of the Rangers remarked.

Ranger Struecker summed up what his men learned on this D-day mission, and what they want Americans to remember about their veterans, everyday, not just on anniversaries and patriotic holidays.

“To remember that they did that to liberate a country that wasn’t our own, and now today, without getting into the politics of the global war on terrorism, we have men and women who are doing something very similar around the rest of the world,” Ranger Struecker said.

“I think every Ranger would tell you, that what happened here, was on the back of their mind as they’re loading on an aircraft tonight and getting ready to hit a target.  And when that target seems overwhelming… they were probably thinking of these men on those cliffs, and thinking I have an obligation to live up to that lineage.  If there’s one word that these cliffs should inspire people about, it’s that sense of duty.  A duty despite any obstacle to accomplish the nation’s mission,” Struecker added.

For Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg, this “tribute mission” that he and his Ranger brothers shared here… became their reminder as they headed back to Afghanistan for another tour of duty.

“It’s also good to show our generation so they don’t forget what they do.  So, yeah, we appreciate what they did.  Like I said, they’re probably one of the greatest generations, but keeps our generation knowing that we’re here because of what they did. Pretty cool,” Remsburg said.

Remsburg added, his Rangers are still out there in the world “Getting it done,” as he finished off the baguette – which he described as tasting plain.  “They don’t know what the hell mayonnaise is over here, apparently,” he laughed.

It was on that next tour of duty in Afghanistan that Ranger Remsburg was terribly wounded — and five years later, brought to the nation’s attention by President Obama at his State of the Union address.  Then again, 3-weeks ago, at the 70th Anniversary of D-Day, when Obama reminded the world that he first met Sgt.1st Class Cory Remsburg here in Normandy, at the 65th Anniversary when he and his fellow Rangers escorted his wife and the D-Day Rangers on stage.

“The next time I saw him, he was in the hospital, unable to speak or walk after an IED nearly killed him in Afghanistan. But over the past five years, Cory has grown stronger, learning to speak again and stand again and walk again — and earlier this year, he jumped out of a plane again.  The first words Cory said to me after his accident, echoed those words first shouted all those years ago on this beach:  Rangers, lead the way,” the president recalled.

The audience, filled with VIPs and world leaders, clapped and clapped for Ranger Cory Remsburg, who was sitting with them.  It was a moment linking the “Greatest Generation” with the “9/11 Generation”.  A moment transcending any “anniversary” and a timely reminder of service and sacrifice, this 4th of July weekend.

Alex Quade