Modern warplanes intrude the legendary Normandy horizon. With stoic precision, they seek a solemn grassy and remarkable clearing amidst fabled farmland and patchy woods. The six French and U.S. planes are carrying special cargo: over 300 Paratroopers, excited, focused and looking forward to following in the footsteps of their forefathers.
On June 6, 1944, the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions jumped into Normandy to initiate the liberation of France, leading the way to victory in Europe and the end of World War II. At the time, over 13 thousand Paratroopers in full combat gear were carried in C-47s across the English Channel and dropped in a single lift overnight into enemy territory.
On the eve of the 73rd anniversary of Operation Overlord, also known as D-Day, two senior U.S. Army Paratroopers are also getting ready to mark milestones of their own. 173rd Airborne Brigade Command Sergeant Major Franklin Velez and the 173rd Brigade Support Battalion Command Sergeant Major James LaFratta are conducting their 100th static-line jumps at this historic event.
Jumping into Normandy on the 73rd commemoration of D-Day is not only an event of personal significance, but also a milestone that brings Paratroopers back to the beginning of their careers.
"It doesn't matter what unit you are currently with, because all Paratroopers started their time with the 507th [Infantry Regiment] at the Airborne School, and the 507th jumped here in Normandy," said Velez. "We are all connected."
Reflecting on the start of his airborne career, Command Sgt. Maj. Velez vividly remembers his first jump with his unit -- the sixth jump of his career, after conducting his first five at the U.S. Army Airborne School in Fort Benning, Georgia.