The Netherlands American Cemetery, nestled in the small village of Margraten, is an extraordinary place. One glance at its regimented and precise appearance conjures up an ethereal formation of Soldiers standing at attention before their headstones.
But that's just a small sample of what these departed Soldiers have in common. First, they voluntarily served their country in time of war. Second, despite their diverse backgrounds, they quickly discovered it didn't matter with whom they shared a last pair of socks, cigarettes or a sleeping bag in a foxhole: they just needed to stay warm and tell stories of home. More importantly, these Soldiers stood bravely together facing horrific situations, forging a lasting brotherhood.
"So it's appropriate they're still together," said Sgt. 1st Class Steve Mrozek, a former 82nd Airborne Division historian. "This is the definitive measure of Soldier camaraderie."
As a servicemember who has dedicated much of his life to helping veterans reconstruct their World War II pasts, Mrozek understands the importance of the Netherlands Cemetery. This landmark was one of the first he included on the "must see" list of battlefield tours for veterans returning to visit the Operation Market Garden and Battle of the Bulge areas.
"It's so rewarding to escort a veteran to a place that had so much impact on his life," said Mrozek. "Especially when there's an emotional attachment because it's hallowed ground for them."
As the only American military burial ground in Holland, stateside visits at the Netherlands Cemetery were rare, and Mrozek was determined not to let that happen on his tour.
A skilled paratrooper with 95 jumps and a recipient of wings from Great Britain, Canada and Holland, Mrozek also possesses a deep affection for the airborne GIs buried overseas. As a Soldier he felt it his duty to pay his respects to GIs who weren't just statistics, but courageous young men denied the chance for long lives.
Mrozek's passion for Operation Market Garden began with a re-enactment jump on the 55th anniversary of the Holland invasion. Flying over the Netherlands in a C-47 escorted by a British Spitfire, Mrozek wore the standard World War II paratrooper uniform and even carried a Thompson submachine gun. As the designated squad leader, he sat in the middle of the stick eagerly waiting the approach to the drop zone marked at 1,000 feet.
The second the green light appeared, Mrozek made his jump. After landing, he quickly discarded his chute and headed to his rally point.
"That has to be the most incredible experience I've ever had," grinned Mrozek, reliving the moment.
A carillon atop the 101-foot memorial tower chimed "God Bless America" and "America the Beautiful" the day Mrozek arrived at the Netherlands Cemetery. He paused to look at the left and right walls where the names of the significant battles fought were commemorated:
MAASTRICT*EINDHOVEN*N IJMEGEN*ARNHEM*JULICH*LI NNIC*
GEILENKIRCHEN*KREFELD* VENLO*RHIENBERG*COLOGNE* WESEL*RUHR
Examining the Court of Honor, Mrozek discovered 1,722 names with rank, organization and state of origin; men killed in action in the region, but whose remains were never individually identified. Above the names, this message was carved:
HERE ARE RECORDED THE NAMES OF AMERICANS WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES IN THEIR SERVICE OF THEIR COUNTRY AND WHO SLEEP IN …