'You're the pride of our nation,' Donald Trump tells veterans on 75th D-Day anniversary in Normandy
COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France – President Donald Trump extolled U.S. veterans gathered in Normandy on the 75th anniversary of D-Day as the "pride of our nation" in a reverential address Thursday that avoided the world's current security challenges.
Trump leaned over to embrace one of the World War II veterans who shared the stage with him at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. He heaped praise on the troops who stormed Omaha and other beaches on the French coast, battling through heavy German fire to claim a beachhead and turn the course of the war.
"We are gathered here on freedom's altar," Trump said within view of both Omaha Beach and the cemetery where 9,388 American military dead are buried. "From across the Earth, Americans are drawn to this place as though it was part of our very soul."
Trump, who has clashed with allies over commitments to NATO and mutual defense obligations, spent little time talking about modern security challenges such as Iran, Russia and North Korea, though he described the U.S. bond with its allies as "unbreakable."
He mostly focused on the troops who came ashore June 6, 1944, and soon after.
"You’re the pride of our nation," he told the veterans.
Trump alliances: European allies made the D-Day landing at Normandy possible
Trump shared the stage with dozens of veterans and foreign leaders, some of whom laughed and joked with him when he appeared.
"Hey, you’re our president, too. Come on up this way," one of the veterans called as Trump took the stage. The same man told Trump there were a lot of people in Pennsylvania who wanted to vote for him in 2020, drawing laughter from the stage.
After describing the heroism of Russell Pickett, a member of the fabled 29th Infantry Division that was among the first wave of soldiers to land on Normandy, the president walked over and gave him a long hug.
"Private Pickett, you honor us all with your presence," Trump said.
Like his predecessors, Trump paid homage to the 156,000 American and Allied troops who landed here, opening a critical second front against Nazi Germany and ultimately pursuing Adolf Hitler's forces across the Rhine River in early 1945. Unlike past U.S. presidents, Trump faced challenges in discussing the institutions that rose out of the fighting, such as the Western military alliance known as NATO.
Trump predecessors focused heavily on those institutions during their D-Day remarks and often used the high-profile address to set a broader foreign policy agenda. President Ronald Reagan used his speech in 1984 to justify U.S. military presence in Europe as a way to counter the Soviet Union.
Trump, on the other hand, has often accused NATO allies of "ripping off" the United States. Still, Trump touched on the role the allies played in World War II, and he and French President Emmanuel Macron put tensions aside to emphasize the historic partnership among the United States, France and other Western European nations.
"To all of our friends and partners – our cherished alliance was forged in the heat of battle, tested in the trials of war and proven in the blessings of peace," Trump said. "Our bond is unbreakable."
Trump may be one of the last presidents to address living U.S. veterans of D-Day at the site of their heroism. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that less than 500,000 U.S. World War II veterans were still living in late 2018. By 2024, on the 80th anniversary of D-Day, the agency projects slightly more than 87,000 World War II veterans will still be alive.
"He said the right things," said Steve Melnikoff, 99, a Maryland man who came ashore the day after D-Day and fought inland with the 29th Infantry Division for nearly a year. "He seems to be very supportive of the Army."
Joe Scida, a U.S. Navy veteran who helped ferry troops onto the beaches, agreed.
"He don't tell you two and two is five; he's going to tell you two and two is four," said Scida, 94, of Pennsylvania. "This guy, I like."
After the speech, Trump and Macron watched flyovers of military aircraft on Omaha Beach before engaging in a long conversation in the cemetery. The two leaders held meetings Trump said would include discussions on trade and defense issues.
"What resonates still, 75 years later, is their incredible courage and generosity," Macron said. "France has not forgotten."
He switched to English as he addressed the U.S. veterans directly.
"We know that we owe to you, veterans, our freedom," he said. "On behalf of my nation, I just want to say thank you."
Like what you’re reading? Download the USA TODAY app for more
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'You're the pride of our nation,' Donald Trump tells veterans on 75th D-Day anniversary in Normandy