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Soldier learns more about D-Day and his WWII veteran grandfather, during staff ride

“I was able to walk in his footsteps, it kind of hit home for me ...”

Historian Dr. Scott Wheeler leads the group down Omaha Beach to help give them a better perspective of what Allied soldiers had to deal with during the D-Day invasion June 6, 1944. Photo credit: Sgt. Dani Debehets

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"My grandpa came through on the first of July in 1944," said Sgt. 1st Class Joshua Fulghum, describing his grandfather's participation in Operation Overlord while visiting Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, during U.S. Army Europe's Senior Enlisted Staff Ride, which traced the history of the Allied operation to liberate France.

For Fulghum, the staff ride became not just a way to learn about U.S. Army history, it was a way to connect with his family's roots.

"I was able to walk in his footsteps. It kind of hit home for me personally," he said, speaking of his grandfather, Pfc. Howard Masters.

Masters arrived on Omaha Beach with the 80th Infantry Division. It was 25 days after the D-Day invasion. Fighting had not let up since the Allied soldiers began their push into France from the coast. On that day, the German 1st SS Panzer Division was attempting an offensive maneuver while other German troops were continuing to resist the advancing Allied forces.

The mission, officially dubbed Operation Overlord, started June 6, 1944, and lasted until Aug. 25, 1944. It was the beginning of the end of the Nazi occupation of France and the end of World War II.

"You see movies, you see TV shows and everything fits on a screen. When you actually walk out and see the mass (and) size of the geography of the location ... these guys had overwhelming odds to confront," Fulghum said. "I think that one thing stuck with me."

Perspective was the main purpose of a staff ride, according to U.S. Army Europe's senior enlisted leader.

"It gives you real perspective, because you can actually see it," said U.S. Army Europe Command Sgt. Maj. Rob Abernethy. "It's one thing to see it on a screen or read it in a book -- and those are all valuable. But until you actually get on the ground, you can never really understand the complications involved doing fire-maneuver in a place like Normandy, you really can't get a feel for it."

With the help of the trip historian, Fulghum found the very spot his grandfather would have planted his water-logged boots into the dense French sand for the first time. From there, Fulghum connected with his mother via video chat so she could experience the moment, too.

"I had a chance to FaceTime with my mom -- she has never been out here," said Fulghum. "She and I both saw the beach for the first time together and it was a very emotional moment for us as a family. It was really awesome to share that."

Allied operations continued after the liberation of Paris in August 1944, as Allied troops moved closer to Belgium and Germany.

Casetti Gerard, just 7 years old when American troops marched through Paris, noticed the group of U.S. soldiers visiting the American Cemetery as part of the staff ride and stopped them to share his memories of the day he first met his country's liberators. The encounter made a lasting impression on U.S. Army Europe Geospatial Operations Sgt. Maj. Pedro Rivera.

"He shook my hand and thanked me and the group for everything we did when he was 7 years old," Rivera said. "He shared some experiences that he went through. And it made me feel proud -- it's a team that I am part of and we owe it to those folks."

Gerard told Rivera how impactful it was all those years ago to receive his very first piece of candy ever from an American soldier. Rivera handed Gerard his sergeant major rank patch.

"I learned early in my career small acts make a big impact," Rivera said. "I had a sergeant major rank in my backpack and I thought it was adequate to give it to the gentleman. And as I was walking away I looked back and saw that gentleman was showing that to his whole family and they were talking over it."

Next year will mark the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landing and the "Greatest Generation's" achievements during Operation Overlord.

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