Today marks 73 years since the D-Day invasion of World War II when more than 160,000 Allied troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of heavily-fortified French coastline to fight Nazi Germany on the beaches of Normandy.
It was during this time when female civilian pilots were first called to serve under military command in the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program, even though they weren’t acknowledged as veterans until 1977 nor given full burial rights at Arlington until 2016. Women have made tremendous strides in military and in aviation in the decades since WWII but there is still much progress to be made until gender equality is reached.
Val’s dad, Pat, a French native, had the opportunity to travel to France last week to not only visit with his family, but to participate in a special event over the weekend dedicated specifically to Val and to all women in military service, past, present and future.
Here are his poetically written reflections from the day’s emotionally and historically charged series of events:
“Camp Arizona, Carentan, June 2017, France:
Camp Arizona is one of the reconstitution camps in the Normandy area that comes alive during the D-Day celebrations in June. Carentan is nearby Saint Mere l’ Eglise, one of the first sites preceding the D-Day landing of the allied forces that would eventually free Europe from the forces of Evil. A paratrooper can still be seen hanging off the steeple of the church.
In the camp, jeeps, trucks, and motorcycles abound. Some are being worked on, some are ready to move equipment and personnel around. In a field nearby, a couple is enjoying a beautiful day, laying on a blanket sipping a glass of wine, and eating some fresh baguette and mandatory Camembert cheese. Music from the 1940’s can be heard muffled at times by the sound of simulated aircrafts flying over the camp.
At 13:00, everyone gathered in front of our tent. Many of the young ladies were dressed in pilot uniforms, while others represented various military services from the Allied forces. Scottish bagpipers were warming up.
After a few words of introduction, Capt Rudolph de Patureaux, French Navy, opened the ceremony as a dedication to the women in the military from the past and present, selfless warriors seldom recognized at the time but serving their countries and paying the highest price. History has unfolded from the efforts of Women Air Service Pilots (WASP) of the 1940’s to his meeting with LT Valerie Cappelaere Delaney in 2007. Val was the first and only US Naval Academy female midshipmen being exchanged with the French Military Academy of St Cyr. He was apparently very impressed with her fluent French and contagious smile.
My turn finally came to explain how Rudolph and I became virtually connected. A few months earlier, Rudolph had managed to organize a series of vintage photographs with his friends holding the portrait of Valerie, in effect connecting the past and the present, with the heroes of a different era coming to life and holding Val close their hearts. Was time a mere illusion? There is no doubt that this same feeling came back to me, but this time, we had entered a new time zone..
Around us, so many in uniform were touched by the sacrifice of the young American pilot serving her country, remembering and honoring similar sacrifices across time and continents.
A community was coming alive. They were now honoring military women.
Bag-pipers started Amazing Grace. Tears filled up our eyes.
Red, white and blue balloons left for the blue sky.
The American and French national anthems were played with full attention followed by a French legionnaire playing TAPS.
Rudolph gave me a flight jacket with a special hand painted portrait of Valerie in front of her Prowler plane on its back, reminiscent of the special nose art figuring feminine figures on the nose of airplanes for good luck.
The French Army even managed a flyover at the last minute as a sign of support. A large paratrooper-dropping plane roared over the camp several times, titling his wings in deference.
In the last 73 years, some progress has been made — with perseverance, silver wings finally were transmuted to gold. WASPs can now be buried with full military honors at Arlington National cemetery. But gender equality in the aviation community is still not achieved, as less than 6% of women become pilots.
As a representative of the Wings For Val foundation, I had the privilege to announce a second scholarship to be awarded next year in honor of Capt Sara Knutson Cullen, a helicopter pilot who shared Val’s fate on the same day of Mar 11, 2013 when two new angels with golden wings departed with no fear and no reproach, surrounded by countless generations of winged angel warriors.
May we one day, grant a scholarship to a young deserving french woman to help her reach her dreams and follow in Val’s footsteps. Rudolph promised even more financial support from the sale of his series of books “Un francais dans la tourmente”. This could potentially start a third scholarship.
The ceremony ended surrounded with my own French immediate family. They came from the northern France to be present and to share this indelible moment. Three generations of Cappelaere’s paid a final tribute to a fallen family member. I am grateful for their presence.
But that day, it also became obvious that Val was part of a much larger family, holding wings with Sara and so many others that answered the call of “If not me, then who…” that we translated to French as: “Qui d’autre que moi”. Not sure if this will stick in a similar manner. But there is no doubt that their spirits will inspire the next generation.”