MORRIS – Robert Strandell will always be proud to wear the 82nd and 101st Airborne Division patches on his uniform.
After all, it was members of the 82nd Airborne Division who helped storm the beaches of Normandy exactly 70 years ago in one of the most remembered battles in world history.
Strandell, a Morris resident, joined the Army 29 years after that fateful battle, but he never forgot the honor those World War II soldiers brought to his division.
Today, D-Day, marks Strandell’s official retirement from the Army after 39 years of service, making it a full-circle moment for the man who always revered the paratroopers who invaded Normandy.
“I didn’t plan it this way,” Strandell said. “It just sort of happened to fall on D-Day, but I’m happy it did.”
Strandell is proud of his years of service, but said he feels his three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan are “nothing like” what the soldiers of World War II went through.
Soldiers like Bill Finn, of Dwight, formerly of Coal City, who was a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne. On D-Day, Finn landed in a French field while operating a glider, and was captured by the Germans. He spent the rest of the war as a prisoner of war.
Finn said that anniversaries like D-Day are important because people need to remember and learn from history so that similar events couldn’t happen again.
“I want people to remember what we went through for freedom,” Finn said.
Some people will never forget the sacrifice, including the anonymous Belgium man who stopped Strandell in his tracks one night several years ago when Strandell was stationed near Amsterdam.
“He pointed to the patch on my uniform and asked if I was part of the 82nd,” Strandell remembered. “I told him I was.”
The man proceeded to shower Strandell with thanks before buying him a steak dinner. Apparently the man was rescued from a German firing squad during World War II by the 82nd Airborne and vowed to never forget the debt.
“That’s a true-life story of what it’s like being affiliated with the 82nd,” Strandell said.
Finn said he recently spoke to a young man about his service and was surprised to learn the boy didn’t know much about World War II, or even what a glider was.
“It’s been so long ago that some people are forgetting,” Finn said.
Strandell volunteered for the Army just after graduating high school and said he doesn’t regret a moment of his years as a soldier.
But, he claims he is ready for retirement.
“My life has always been half and half, but I’ve spent the majority of my life in the military,” he said. “I guess it’s time to see how the other half – the civilian half – lives.”
Strandell recommends the service to all young people looking for a life of adventure and honor. He said he will always be proud of his airborne division patches and his long service.
“It’s a good career for anyone. I’d highly recommend it,” he said.
• Shaw Media reporter Bill Wimbiscus contributed to this report.