BASSE-BODEUX, Belgium — Born in 1940, as Belgium was occupied by Nazi Germany, Emile Lacroix grew up hearing stories about the feats of American G.I.s who liberated his village.

He never forgot that.

For most of the last four decades, Lacroix has made it his life’s work to keep alive the memory of what American soldiers did for his countrymen in World War II, especially those of the 82nd Airborne Division.

His efforts, well known by American veterans whom he’s met and befriended over the years, were recognized Saturday as he received the Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service, the highest award the secretary of defense can present to a private citizen, politician, non-career federal employee or foreign national.

The award was sponsored by the 82nd, but was initiated by Larry Mallet and Christopher Schaede, Air Force retirees, who a few years ago took part in a walk organized by Lacroix.

The 31st edition of that walk took place Saturday – a 13.5-mile trek in the footsteps of two 82nd Airborne units during the Battle of the Bulge.

“The detail that he goes into to make this so realistic for families of World War II veterans like myself” is astounding, Mallet said at a banquet after the walk and medal ceremony. “What he’s doing here, it motivated me to see this award all the way through.”

Lacroix, a petite man with gray hair, said he never imagined that he’d be recognized in such a way for his efforts, and considers the work he does to make sure World War II veterans aren’t forgotten a privilege.

“We were occupied, and they came to liberate us,” Lacroix said. “It’s something, I spend my life to thank them. Because when somebody asks me, ‘Why do you do this?’ I say, ‘Because I like liberty.’ This word is enough to say everything.” Twitter: @mattmillham

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