The story of Bill Sisk, 94, sounds like a far-fetched action movie. At 17, he joined the Army after lying about his age. In the months to come, he landed at Utah Beach during the D-Day invasion just three days shy of his 19th birthday; helped liberate Flossenburg Concentration Camp; served under Gen. George Patton; was hit by shrapnel in the leg, recovered and was sent back to the front; and saw the treasures Hitler hid in the Merkers salt mines.
Hard to believe, but Sisk’s experiences weren’t even all that unusual in 1944. John McCoy of Rockford, Ill., for instance, also signed up to serve just after graduating from high school.
Both Sisk and McCoy were present at the 75th anniversary commemoration of the D-Day invasion at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford this past June. Dozens of their fellow D-Day veterans joined them as visitors from across the United States and dignitaries from Allied nations around the world came to thank these men and women for their inspiring service.
One by one, each of the veterans was called to the stage to be recognized. As they approached the podium, an announcer read details of their service that day. The stories were truly remarkable.
Yet, what struck me as I listened was what the announcer shared next — the details of what each veteran did after D-Day.
Many went on to fight in the Pacific theater. Some served long after World War II, fighting again in Korea and, yes, even in Vietnam. And all of them served beyond the military as dedicated members of their communities back home — as business leaders, volunteers, teachers and more.
In that moment, I realized that D-Day was not the “end” of their duty. It was just one of many, many days of service to our nation.
As photographer Cade Martin took portraits of D-Day and other World War II veterans that day, I continued to think about this powerful message — that these last few living veterans are now passing the flag to our generation and future generations, and asking us to do our duty to our country, too.
Though we might not be called upon to serve on the battlefield as they did, we can honor them and the spirit of D-Day in big and small ways.
Whether it’s volunteering to make a difference for others in our communities, supporting today’s military personnel as they defend freedom around the world or simply visiting the National D-Day Memorial and teaching our children about the importance of service, we all have a duty to keep the spirit of D-Day alive each and every day. Because the story of D-Day isn’t the story of invincible superheroes saving the world with magical powers. It’s the story of regular, everyday people who saved the world by doing their duty to the best of their ability.
People like Daniel Villarial, a World War II vet who strode into our photography studio that day wearing his original uniform. That’s right. It still fit. In fact, he looked so athletic and vibrant that no one in the room could believe he was more than 90 years old.
His chest was covered in medals and badges, but the recognition he seemed most proud of was a bright red lipstick mark on his cheek. It was planted there by a complete stranger in the crowd as she thanked him for his service. He beamed with pride as he told us the story.
If you look closely at his portrait, you will see we left it there. Villarial, like his fellow veterans honored that day, earned it.