MARGRATEN, Netherlands — Red roses in hand, Emma, Miranda and Samantha stepped carefully among the marble headstones. Talking quickly and walking almost as fast, the 11-year-olds were scouting for one particular grave.
After a handful of turns through the wet grass, they found it: a white stone cross identifying the final resting place of 2nd Lt. Thomas C. Mooney, a Pennsylvanian who died Feb. 10, 1944.
Samantha bent down and placed her rose at the foot of the ghostly stone. Then all three girls were off again to find another name among the 8,301 Americans laid to rest here.
It looked like a scavenger hunt, but the girls were among about 75 sixth-graders from AFNORTH International School who alighted Friday on the hallowed ground of the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial to pay respects to American servicemembers in observation of Veterans Day.
The event, held at the only American cemetery in the Netherlands, brought children of the latest generation of American fighting men and women face to face with the ghosts of a past war, a fact not lost on Ashlie, an 11-year-old from Oklahoma City whose mother is a veteran.
“That one, right there where it says George Ford Jr.?” she said. “That’s the one I chose.”
Having read Ford’s biography as part of a Veterans Day assignment before comingto the cemetery, she was eager to talk about the person she referred to as “a great man.”
“He fought for his family. His wife had just recently had twins, but one didn’t make it.”
The significance of the children’s participation in the event, where they sang songs honoring veterans and learned the cemetery’s history, might not sink in right now, said Air Force Maj. Gen. Joseph Reynes Jr., deputy chief of staff for operations at NATO’s Allied Joint Forces Headquarters Brunssum.
“But sooner or later down the road, they’re going to be thinking about something and they’ll go, ‘You know, I was at Margraten,’ and they’ll think about somebody they know who is serving, and it will mean something to them.”
Reynes was at Margraten on Friday to take care of two pieces of business: one, to deliver the keynote address at the ceremony involving AFNORTH elementary and high school students; the other, to help a Marine lieutenant colonel he met in Afghanistan.
The Marine’s great uncle is buried here, and nobody in his family has ever seen the grave, Reynes said. So Reynes did three rubbings of the headstone to send the Marine and his family.
“I’m going to be very happy to put this in the mail with a little card so that the family can have a little closure,” Reynes said.
In his speech, Reynes said the first American was interred here Nov. 10, 1944.
“Who were these men? Where did they come from? What were their stories?” Reynes asked.
Reynes said they were “just regular folks from all walks of life, just like our fathers, our mothers, our families, our friends. They were called away to serve in a time of need.”
Reynes noted that Veterans Day, a day to honor all veterans, started out in 1919 as Armistice Day, a day to mark the end of World War I, which at the time many believed was the war to end all wars.
“Today, as we speak, we have members of our armed services standing in harm’s way for our protection and for our freedom. They stand ready as their fathers did.”
In an interview after the ceremony, Reynes said: “It’s important to tie the link for all of us to those who went before us, because they’re the ones who paved the way and won the freedoms” we now enjoy and protect.