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Fayetteville vet recognized by president in D-Day remarks

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — President Obama highlighted a local veteran and a Fort Bragg soldier during remarks on the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

Speaking at the Normandy American Cemetery at Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, Obama remembered the sacrifices of troops who participated in the historic invasion.

"If prayer were made of sound, the skies over England that night would have deafened the world," Obama said of the historic invasion. "Captains paced their decks. Pilots tapped their gauges. Commanders pored over maps, fully aware that for all the months of meticulous planning, everything could go wrong - the winds, the tides, the element of surprise - and above all, the audacious bet that what waited on the other side of the channel would compel men not to shrink away, but to charge ahead.

"Fresh-faced GIs rubbed trinkets, kissed pictures of sweethearts, checked and re-checked their equipment. 'God,' asked one, 'Give me guts.' And in the pre-dawn hours, planes rumbled down runways; gliders and paratroopers slipped through the sky; giant screws began to turn on an armada that looked like more ships than sea. And more than 150,000 souls set off towards this tiny sliver of sand upon which hung more than the fate of a war, but rather the course of human history."

Obama said he was humbled to have some D-Day veterans in attendance. Among them was retired Command Sgt. Maj. Kenneth "Rock" Merritt of Fayetteville.

When listing veterans of the invasion, Obama highlighted Merritt who "saw a recruitment poster asking him if he was man enough to be a paratrooper - so he signed up on the spot."

"And that decision landed him here on D-Day with the 508th regiment, a unit that would suffer heavy casualties," Obama said. "And 70 years later, it's said that all across Fort Bragg, they know Rock - not just for his exploits on D-Day, or his 35 years in the Army, but because 91-year-old Rock Merritt still spends his time speaking to the young men and women of today's Army and still bleeds 'O.D. Green' for his 82nd Airborne."

Speaking in his home shortly before traveling to France for the anniversary, Merritt said he had originally planned to join the Marine Corps "because I liked their uniforms" but decided on the Army after seeing the inspirational poster.

At 127 pounds, he was told he would have to be near perfect to be a paratrooper.

It was a challenge Merritt immediately took. By the time he retired, he was one of the most decorated enlisted soldiers in the Army.

Obama also praised current soldiers.

"Rock, I want you to know that Staff Sgt. Melvin Cedillo-Martinez, who's here today, is following in your footsteps," the president said. "He just had to become an American first - because Melvin was born in Honduras, moved to the United States, joined the Army. After tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, he was reassigned to the 82nd Airborne. And Sunday, he'll parachute into Normandy. 'I became part of a family of real American heroes,' he said. 'The paratroopers of the 82nd.'"

Before the ceremony, Obama met with Merritt and Cedillo-Martinez during a private meet-and-greet at Omaha Beach.

Merritt also will be Obama's guest for lunch, according to officials.

Omaha Beach, where the president spoke, was the site of some of the bloodiest fighting of Operation Overlord, the official name of the Allied invasion of Normandy.

"By the end of that longest day, this beach had been fought, lost, refought, and won - a piece of Europe once again liberated and free," he said. "Hitler's Wall was breached, letting loose Patton's Army to pour into France. Within a week, the world's bloodiest beach had become the world's busiest port. Within a month, one million Allied troops thundered through Normandy into Europe, and as our armies marched across the continent, one pilot said it looked 'as if the very crust of the Earth had shaken loose.'"

Obama called it sacred ground, a reference to the 9,387 Americans buried at the cemetery there.

"Here, we don't just commemorate victory, as proud of that victory as we are. We don't just honor sacrifice, as grateful as the world is," the president said. "We come to remember why America and our allies gave so much for the survival of liberty at its moment of maximum peril. We come to tell the story of the men and women who did it so that it remains seared into the memory of a future world."

"Omaha - Normandy - this was democracy's beachhead. And our victory in that war decided not just a century, but shaped the security and well-being of all posterity," Obama added. ".None of that would have happened without the men who were willing to lay down their lives for people they'd never met and ideals they couldn't live without."
 

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