The Landing Zone | 5.16.14
By Alan W. Dowd

The French are frustrated about Washington erasing red lines in Syria and "leading from behind" in North Africa. The German government is still smarting over the NSA spying program. Several European diplomats are shocked by the—ahem—undiplomatic comments of a high-ranking State Department official. As Russian tanks rumble along NATO's borders, East European governments want Washington to do more to show a tangible commitment to their security. Even the British—America's closest allies—have been left scratching their heads at times over Washington's diplomatic missteps and protocol mistakes. In short, Europe is not exactly happy with America.

Yet it remains grateful.

As Americans prepare for Memorial Day—the day we pause to honor and remember those who have fallen in military service to the nation—it's comforting and indeed moving to know that our friends in Europe continue to care for those American troops who never made it back across the Atlantic.

At cemeteries in Britain, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy and The Netherlands, America's sons rest in beautiful green fields maintained by the host countries—and in many cases, by European families that have adopted these gravesites.

For example, each of the 8,301 graves at the American Cemetery and Memorial in Margraten, in The Netherlands, has been adopted by a Dutch family. Importantly, some 600,000 people visit Margraten each year; even more importantly, 40 percent of them are school children.

One of those graves holds the remains of 2nd Lt. Royce D. Taylor, a B-17 bombardier killed in combat in December 1943. Lt. Taylor is the grandfather of a dear friend, Lt. Col. Scott Taylor, who is also a combat veteran. The younger Taylor piloted F-15Es in hotspots over Europe and the Middle East before leaving active-duty service in 2005.

"As a veteran, my very first reaction is that there's a code of taking care of your brothers-in-arms. It transcends eras and borders," Taylor explains. "To have another nation caring for our fallen heroes, it goes beyond words; it reinforces our responsibility to care for our fallen; it reminds us freedom is not just an American ideal. And as a grandson, I'm just thankful. To have somebody adopt my grandfather reflects their appreciation for what he fought for."

In corresponding with the Dutch family that adopted his grandfather's gravesite, Taylor recently learned the grave-adoption program is so popular that there's a waiting list. He also learned that his grandfather's resting place will be tended by a retired Dutch Special Forces veteran.

"I can hear the music from the U.S. cemetery every hour when working in the garden," the Dutch soldier writes. He promises to "take my task very seriously and take care of the grave of your grandfather," adding, "On Memorial Day, I will put flowers on his grave and I will send you a picture of that."

"I think it is incredible that they take such great care of our country," Taylor says of Margraten's adoptive families. "God bless the EU," he adds with a smile.

Similar grave-adoption programs can be found at American cemeteries and memorials at Ardennes in Belgium, Henri-Chapelle in Belgium and in Luxembourg, according to a Boston Globe report, which notes, "The Margraten program is the largest and oldest."

Participation in the grave-adoption program in Epinal, France, has skyrocketed in recent years, jumping 2700 percent since 2012. Jocelyne Papelard, who is in charge of the program, tells The Argus Leader that it's "the least the French can do...American soldiers not only came once, but twice to liberate and help this country for a cause which was not theirs an ocean away."

As The Argus Leader reports, a young French woman named Karen Sallier travels to the American cemetery in Epinal eight times each year to tend the grave of Cpl. Francis Los, an American soldier from South Dakota who died fighting the Nazis in 1944. "They were about my age when they came to Europe, so maybe that's why I feel close to them," Sallier says poignantly. "They chose to fight for their country and also to save Europe."

This sacred tradition of caring for American military gravesites is believed to have begun soon after D-Day, in France. "One of the first French citizens to tend the grave of a fallen American soldier was Simone Renaud, whose husband was mayor of St. Mere Eglise, France, which was the first town liberated by Allied forces," as reporter Alex McRae wrote in 2012. After Life photographed Renaud placing flowers at the grave of Theodore Roosevelt Jr., she was inundated with requests from American families asking her to tend the graves of their sons and husbands, brothers and dads. Renaud would come to be known as "Mother of Normandy." A film was made about her life's work in 2010.

According to the American Battle Monuments Commission, there are 124,909 American war dead buried at cemeteries like Margraten and Epinal—30,921 from World War I and 93,238 from World War II. As Stars and Stripes details, they range in size from the tiny Flanders Field American Cemetery in Belgium, where 386 Americans are buried, to the massive Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France, where 14,246 Americans are laid to rest. Both of these are World War I cemeteries. The largest American World War II cemetery in Europe is Lorraine American Cemetery in France, where 10,489 Americans are buried.

"You leave your dead in our hands," Marshal Ferdinand Foch declared as the American Expeditionary Force departed. "On our soil we will care for them religiously and zealously, as bearing witness to the powerful aid you brought us."

Almost a century later, France, Belgium, Holland and other corners of Europe freed, rescued and saved by American blood still keep Marshal Foch's promise.

The Landing Zone is Dowd’s monthly column on national defense and international security featured on the American Legion's website.