This Memorial Day, we take our own hats off to a true American hero, a Real Deal of a guy if ever there was one.
Don Casey is one of those heroes it's almost too easy to forget about, his incredible valor and commitment to this country hidden amid the business of daily life. Soon to be 90, Don runs an independent hardware store in the little town of Grifton, here in eastern North Carolina.
But as a young man, Don helped rock the planet back into some kind of moral alignment. He served in five (yes, five) separate campaigns in World War II, from D-Day through to the Battle of the Bulge. On D-Day, June 6, 1944, he was part of the wave of U.S. troops that landed on what Allied forces had dubbed Utah Beach in Normandy, France. The battle wasn't as bloody, and with ultimately such a profound loss of life, as that taking place on Omaha Beach to the west. Nonetheless, several of Don's best buddies didn't survive the fight to take that stretch of embattled coastline.
In April of this year, for the first time in 68 years, Don returned to Normandy, to Utah Beach. He'd had the opportunity often before then, notes his daughter, Karen Casey-Wooten, but he hadn't been emotionally prepared to handle such a visit.
This year, the timing was just right. Don was a guest lecturer at Howard Community College in Columbia, Md., sharing his personal wartime recollections with a study-abroad class focused on WWII. When they decided to make a trip to France to see firsthand some of the key historical battle sites, they invited Don to be their guest. Very, very cool, we think.
The visit to Utah Beach, though emotional, didn't have the profound impact on Don his daughter, or his other travel partners, had expected. Don was a little distracted, Karen says. "He was trying so hard to see and figure out exactly where he'd landed (back then)," she explains.
But when the group's tour ended in Colville Cemetery, that all changed. Colville, an American graveyard not far from Utah Beach, is kind of like the French version of Arlington National Cemetery, Karen notes. Three of Don's dear friends, who were killed during the Utah landing, are interred there. Their hasty burial following battle did not leave the opportunity to say any real goodbyes.
Don was utterly overcome with emotion upon visiting the cemetery. Not surprisingly, so were those people who witnessed his visit there.
"He got to finally get some closure with some of his buddies," Karen says.
In 2010, Don was awarded the National Order of the Legion of Honour, often simply called the French Legion of Honor, for the part he played in defending European freedom. For defending freedom, period.