It was 75 years ago that thousands of young soldiers stormed five beaches along the coast of France in the face of overwhelming odds. These men – many of whom weren't even 20 years old – ran forward amidst hellfire and death so that generations could live free from the tyranny of Nazi Germany.
For many of them, it was the last day of their lives.
The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial serves as the final resting place for nearly 10,000 of those brave individuals, but for thousands more, life went on following the events of D-Day and World War II. They returned home and went about their lives - bound by an unwavering sense of camaraderie that still persists to this very day – but without the closure such a cataclysmic experience demands.
Many sought to return as the years went on, eager to stand where so many of their brothers fell and to remember that sacrifice, but they lacked the means to do so. It's a cruel reality that these heroes – men who stood up in the face of evil – are often without the resources to go back to where it all occurred.
It's something that former Kansas City Chiefs' linebacker Donnie Edwards is dedicated to changing.
"Several years ago, I was sitting around talking with some veterans following a living history re-enactment one night and I told them I was going to Normandy. That's when one of them said that he'd love to go back, but he couldn't afford it. He didn't have the money or the means," Edwards recalled. "I said, 'Well, I'll take you.'"
Edwards – who played 14 seasons with the Chiefs and San Diego Chargers and owns the fifth-most tackles in Kansas City history – went on to keep that promise and so much more. He's traveled alongside our nation's heroes to Normandy, Iwo Jima, Belgium, Holland and other locations around the globe for more than a decade, funding the experience completely either out of his own pocket or through his organization, The Best Defense Foundation.
He's taken dozens of veterans to Normandy across 20 programs alone – allotting many of these brave men with their first experience back on the shores of France since the events of D-Day – and as the operation's 75th anniversary rolled around in June, he was back with 30 more.
"It's about giving these veterans an opportunity to go back with their brothers so that they can find closure after all these years," Edwards said, passion echoing in his voice. "They can experience that camaraderie and brotherhood again that a lot of them never really had after they got back. This generation did so much for all of us. So many people live free in the world today and it's on the backs of these servicemen and their sacrifice."
Edwards' programs strive to deliver an experience worthy of that sacrifice. For one thing, there are no families or guests – just the individuals who shared the battlefield - and that's by design.
"We want it to be with their brothers and sisters who they were there with 75 years ago," Edwards said, mentioning that a nurse attended last June's program. "It's important that they have the time to talk. Just being a fly on the wall at dinner is amazing. They're all strangers on the first day, and by the end of the program, they're best friends. They start to find out where they all were and how what they were doing was all connected. It's incredible."
It's no accident that Edwards found himself in this kind of philanthropic work following his playing career. The military runs deep in his blood, from his sister and two nephews – who all either recently returned from active duty or are still serving – to his grandfather, who survived the bombing at Pearl Harbor.
"It all started with him," Edwards said, speaking of his grandfather. "Growing up without a father, he was essentially my father-figure. He was all about the service and he taught me about country, flag, freedom and opportunity. He told me that I could do anything I wanted if I worked hard in this country, and I never forgot that."
Edwards took that advice and ran with it, earning a master's degree from UCLA in addition to his impressive career on the football field. His grandfather's values are a part of who he is, and that includes giving back to those that made it all possible.
He's been on two USO tours already this year - visiting troops in Africa and watching the Super Bowl with soldiers stationed in Japan – in addition to his foundation's Iwo Jima program back in March. Edwards is committed – plain and simple – and it goes beyond just the financing and planning - it's about connecting with the veterans themselves.
"Four years ago, we had a veteran on our Normandy program who was a little frail at the time, but he had never been back and wanted to go," Edwards recalled. "We took him to Pointe du Hoc - where the rangers climbed – and it was just so surreal. He wanted to go down into the German bunker, which was probably like 20 steps - but he couldn't do it – so I picked him up and carried him down the steps into the bunker so that he could see it. He got pretty emotional, hugged me and said, 'Thank you.' He passed away not too long after that. It's hard to articulate what that was like. When you're actually there with the veterans, it's just live-changing."
There are countless stories just like that one on every one of Edwards' programs, and he'll surely encounter more as the years go on.
After all, Edwards has dedicated his life to those that protected his.
"I owe so much to these guys," Edwards said. "Using my platform to raise awareness and recognition for our men and women in uniform is what I want to do."
To learn more about The Best Defense Foundation or to donate, click here.