Last week the Greatest Generation ever lost one of its greatest. At the age of 97, a true American hero passed. Ray Vaz lived a life that movies are made of. It is important to share his story to remind us all of the debt we owe to that generation.
At the age of 19, on June 6, 1944, Ray stormed the beaches of Normandy. While running forward into enemy fire, he earned his first Purple Heart when he was shot that day. The war was not yet over for him. After recuperating, he rejoined his unit fighting their way through France where he shed blood for his country a second time, again taking a bullet. Once again, he recuperated and joined the fight as his unit liberated Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany.
The Greatest Generation ever were taught lessons that we, this privileged generation, are challenged to understand. Their core was forged in the Great Depression and tested and steeled in the war. They came back to do the hard work of making this country the envy of the world.
I had the honor of getting to know Ray and his beloved wife Ann. For many years, Ray was not able to speak of his war experience, but in his later years he shared his story with children in classes that his daughter Caryl Vaz Salesi taught. Several years ago, over lunch, Ray shared some of those stories with me. I read somewhere that bravery is not defined by the absence of fear, but instead by being very afraid and yet moving forward any way.
Ray shared his experience on D-Day waiting for his landing craft to reach the beaches. He wondered how deep the water would be and whether his life vest would be able to support him and all the equipment he was carrying. You see, Ray didn’t know how to swim, but still ran forward. He spoke of “just doing his job,” never acknowledging that “his job” was saving the world.
He lived a life of quiet dignity, never boasting of his accomplishments or revealing the scars he carried. When I asked him about his experience liberating Buchenwald, he broke down in tears and could not go on. His wife Ann explained that even after more than 70 years, there were nights that he woke up screaming after having nightmares about Buchenwald.
Ray did and saw things that we are blessed to never have to experience. We all owe a debt that can never be repaid to people like Ray. This village, country and world are better because of Ray Vaz. God Bless him and his family.