This picture stopped me in my internet surfing tracks this week. I would never claim to be a “military historian,” since I have no credentials to that end. But I do spend a great deal of time in military history research (you could say it’s my full-time job), personally served in the military for over a decade, and have spoken with many veterans from all of the 20th century American wars except World War 1. Tough to find those guys, since any survivors were at least 100 years old when I started my career. They’re all gone now.
I’ve seen many photographs of battlefields and veterans returning to those battlefields. They’re always poignant. I don’t think I have seen one as poignant, for me, as this one.
This picture was taken by a CBS reporter named Doug Dunbar five years ago at the 70th anniversary commemoration of the D-Day landings.
The sand is Omaha Beach. The old man who put aside his walker to bury his face in that sand is Sergeant Major Robert Blatnick.
SGM Blatnick was the top enlisted man in his battalion of 901 young men who landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944 under constant and accurate machine gun fire from a fortified position on the cliffs you see in the background.
It took them 24 hours to reach 500 yards inland.
The head count of sons, brothers, and husbands remaining in his care after those 24 hours and 500 yards was 387.
I can’t presume to know what’s going on in his head during that photograph. Is it memories of the slaughter itself, when as the “father” of the battalion he watched as his sons were helplessly ripped apart by high caliber bullets?
Is it memories of the night before while they were on the ship, when all 901 were afraid they were going to die but still believing in the backs of their minds that they would make it back to marry that girl or go on that backpacking trip before college?
Is it the suicidal weight of guilt that all military leaders who have lost men feel? Is it the letters to the mothers and widows that he wrote under a rain-spattered tarp with his feet buried in freezing mud, waiting for the next strafing run by a German Stuka?
The final thing to note about the picture is how he is alone. He was ‘alone’ the first time he crossed that sand, too.
The kids SGM Blatnick led had no less of a terrifying experience, but it was more straightforward. They crouched behind a steel tank obstacle for cover. They knew they needed to stand up and sprint with all of their gear to the next one, and then the next one beyond that. They needed to try to hear orders being shouted over the explosions, and then try to recognize the voice of the next leader shouting orders after the first one gets shot in the throat. It’s simple: try to follow the last orders you heard, and try not to get shot.
But if you’re the one leading those men, you suffer differently. Your competence, ability to think clearly, and courage means life or death for a bunch of boys who’d rather be playing cards or shooting rabbits on the farm. And even with full competence on display and your courage intact, you still have to watch them die. Their mother isn’t going to care about you saying, “I did my best.”
I started as a private and finished as an officer. The training and mental conditioning for each role was clearly different. I had to first understand that before being able to accept it.
You and I are the troop leaders of our homes. To whatever degree we have influence at work, church, and our communities, we are troop leaders there as well. Maybe not direct command, but certainly influence. As followers of Christ and as men, we carry the weight of leadership and the consequences it entails.
Being such a leader means there will be times where we have made the best plans we can make and still watch our loved ones suffer. There are times where defeat will feel like our only friend.
We must crawl the 500 yards anyway. We must write the letters of sorrow under the tarp.
I wouldn’t know how to comfort SGM Blatnick as he knelt in the sand where he lost 514 sons. But I do know that the other 387 still needed him desperately after that 24 hours. He had to be strong. He had to lead.
Whatever Omaha Beach you are facing today, others depend on you. Be strong. Lead.
“Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong.”
– 1 Corinthians 16:13
Praise to our God and arrows to the enemy-