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Memorial Day: visiting a father's grave

For the first time, two sisters travel to the Belgium gravesite of their father, a WWII pilot.

That’s another reason so many soldiers are buried in Europe. Many families did not want to go through the trauma of a reburial in the U.S. and decided not to repatriate the remains. In addition, Roberts said, she learned that soldiers were counseled by the U.S. military to make that decision for themselves in advance, “to have their affairs in order,” and a good number of them decided their young wives and children would be better off not having to deal with a cadaver. Mo Crossen had left instructions to bury him wherever he might fall.

Eisenhauer brings up another point that may not sound patriotic, but is a widely held view among relatives: Their fathers may receive more appreciation here, in these immaculately manicured grounds, than they would in the U.S. Belgium was a battleground in both world wars, and both times U.S. troops came to liberate the country.

Almost 14,000 Americans now lie beneath Belgian soil and they remain fervently appreciated across generations of Belgians. In the Flanders Field World War I Cemetery in Waregem, Belgian schoolchildren have sung the “Star-Spangled Banner” in English since 1923, with a pause only during the German occupation in WWII. They’ve started doing the same more recently at Ardennes.

“I was a little scared,” admitted one of this year’s performers, 9-year-old Sophie Arnolis. “But when you learn it by heart, it’s not so difficult.” (Their first glimpse of their country’s royalty, Princess Astrid sitting in the front row, appeared to be a bigger distraction than nerves, though several students lamented that she was wearing a pantsuit and sitting on a regular folding chair instead of having the ballgown and throne they hoped for.)

The other VIP treatment for thousands of U.S. war dead in Belgium, France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands is the “adoption” of gravesites by local citizens. Ariane Villers, striding purposefully through rows of marble headstones with a bagful of red roses, is one of the leaders of this movement for at Ardennes. She personally cares for a dozen soldiers she calls her “godsons,” and her 9-year-old daughter, Lise, has adopted Crossen. They leave flowers occasionally throughout the year and in general, just remind the fallen men they care about them. Her sister does the same at Henri-Chapelle.

“I do talk to them,” she said with a smile. “We pray for them and for them to go on protecting us as they did, and we thank them for what we have.”

Denise and Richard Orban were also at the cemetery this Memorial Day weekend to visit their adoptee, Staff Sgt. Walter Chilcote, whose sister Carol was there with AWON. Denise Orban says her father was a German POW and it was natural for her to adopt a grave after all the sacrifices the Americans made for Belgium.

“It was for a country they’d never seen, that they didn’t know,” she said. “For liberty! That’s very important.”

Stacy Roberts and Nancy Boothe took in all these details as they walked toward the back of the cemetery to find Mo among the 5,329 names here. They trembled as they made their way to Plot D, Row 5, Grave 25, which they had seen only in pictures.

Roberts did not expect to be overcome by emotion, since she’d been researching her father for 18 months and had already been through what she thought would be the most difficult moments. But standing in front of the cross bearing his name — the inscription clearly visible thanks to being filled with sand from Normandy Beaches — she was again the orphaned child, standing with the baby sister he’d never met. But only briefly. She was also the fighter pilot’s daughter.

“Thank you for our for our freedom,” she said through her tears. “I salute you, Dad ... I salute you, Dad.”