NOVEMBER 16, 2017 – They stood as a group, 19 strong huddled amongst the 9,385 tombstones at the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, France. They are members of the Israeli organization Brothers for Life, and on this day they came to honor the dead; those Americans that sacrificed their young lives on the doorstep of freedom during those devastating summer months in 1944.
These 19 Israeli war veterans understand sacrifice. They have lost their brothers and parts of themselves – both mentally and physically – in the never-ending effort to protect the State of Israel.
Theirs is now a fraternity to which no one wants to pledge. From different military units, they have come together to form a battalion of 800 men whose mission is to heal each other. Now entering its 10th year, Brothers for Life serves as a supporting social framework that helps injured soldiers recover and fulfill their personal and professional goals.
Dekel, 40, is one of the organization’s leaders. He lost 15 close friends during the three years he fought in Lebanon in the 1990s. He left the military angry, confused, and tortured.
“My mother said to me ‘You are not the same flower I sent to the army,’” Dekel recalled. “I told her that I was a fighter and that was part of life. We argued about it for another eight years before I got help.”
Help came in the way of fellow fighters suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as well as physical wounds that left some without their eyesight and some without their legs. Together, they have brought each other back to life through companionship, mentorship, and through goodwill visits around the world, where they share their stories and open their hearts.
These Brothers for Life now have a “sister” in Boston. Her name is Patricia A. Lewis and she’s the co-owner of Boston-based Vantage Deluxe World Travel. She is also the founder of the Vantage Heroes program, which has offered special healing cruises through Europe for American veterans, survivors of the Boston Marathon bombings, and 9/11 families.
“We wanted to expand the program internationally,” Lewis said. “We just didn’t know the impact it would have.”
Lewis invited Brothers for Life members on a free, seven-day cruise along the Seine River from Conflans, France, to the D-Day landing beaches in Normandy. They visited Claude Monet’s gardens in Giverny and climbed to Richard the Lionheart’s castle, Chateau-Gaillard, built in 1196.
But the most powerful moment came when they stepped off the tour bus at Colleville-sur-Mer.
“I can smell the battlefield,” one member of the group said. For him, that sense brought back stark memories of his own combat experiences in Lebanon and other dangerous places.
Gazing out across the sea of tombstones at the American Cemetery, another veteran acknowledged that his father had been the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust.
Dekel and his brothers stopped and prayed at some of the 149 Jewish graves. They laid down a special wreath at the cemetery’s memorial and offered a heartfelt thank-you from the people of Israel. The group then sang “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem.
“We sing for all those that died here,” Dekel said. “And we sing for our Jewish brothers that gave their lives without a country to call their own.”
Their group was bigger now, as American veterans traveling on the same cruise joined them arm-in-arm in prayer. They were heroes honoring heroes.
Robert Ullery, a 90-year-old World War II veteran from upstate New York, felt a special camaraderie with these Brothers for Life.
“I feel so comfortable around these boys,” Ullery said. “There’s an indescribable connection between veterans no matter how old we are or what country we come from. We all speak the same language.”
Later as they walked along Omaha Beach, where thousands of Americans fought their way through the blood and sand, a member of the group named Roy reflected upon his new friendship with Ullery.
“Without him and other Americans like him, I would not be here right now,” Roy said. “I would not have a country. We are all indebted to those brave men.”
Casey Sherman is a New York Times bestselling author of “The Finest Hours” and “Boston Strong.”