ENCINITAS — In commemoration of the 76th anniversary of D-Day, local nonprofit Best Defense Foundation hosted a virtual “We Walk Alone, Together” event on June 6 in Encinitas, inviting participants from around the world to remember the fallen.
Edwards, a retired San Diego Chargers linebacker and founder of Best Defense, initially planned to walk the 5-kilometer walk by himself, but once word of the event spread, he was joined by World War II veterans Gilbert D. Nadeau and Andre C. Chappaz.
Nadeau, 94, was a signalman aboard the U.S. Navy Landing Craft Support vessel USS LCS (L) (3) – 45, which was assigned to the Asiatic-Pacific Theater. Chappaz, 94, was an engineer in the 1885th Aviation Engineer Battalion, which built airfields in Guam for B-29 bombers to land.
And while this year’s in-person events were canceled due to COVID-19, the occasion was no less poignant.
“We needed to recognize and honor D-Day and just because we have COVID-19, it doesn’t mean we can’t remember,” Edwards said. “People could walk anywhere they lived around the world with their friends and family. We had people walking in Australia, Israel, Argentina, Spain, and Germany, in addition to the United States. It was really beautiful.”
Best Defense continued its annual tradition by inviting people to participate in a virtual 5-kilometer walk from Cardiff to Solana Beach — the same distance between Allied landing zones in Pont du Hoc and Omaha Beach.
In previous years, the nonprofit organization has helped escort WWII veterans to D-Day commemorations in Normandy, France. In 2019, 17 veterans, including Nadeau and Chappaz, made the trip
A virtual commemoration began at 9:30 p.m. on June 5, with live coverage of Omaha Beach at “H-Hour” — the exact time of the D-Day invasion — approximately 6:30 a.m. in Normandy. The event hosted speakers for the next 14 hours from across the globe.
Married couple Rebecca Rouse, personal training manager at Equinox La Costa, and Joel Del Rosario, an active-duty captain in the Marine Corps, also attended the event.
“It’s essential that we teach today’s young people about our nation’s history,” Rouse said, “One day when there are no longer WWII veterans still with us to tell their stories, it will be up to us to preserve their memories and share them on their behalf. They are truly the greatest generation.”
Halfway through the walk, the group paused when Chappaz pulled in a friend and began to dance in the street to the 1940s era music being played on a speaker.
“(Chappaz) danced better than men half his age or younger,” Del Rosario said. “It inspired all of us,”
After the walk, Del Rosario said he was able to spend additional time speaking with both veterans.
“It was fascinating to compare our unique combat experiences,” Del Rosario said. “With 70+ years between our military service, so much has changed in terms of technology and equipment, yet the human element remains largely unchanged.”
Based in Solana Beach, Best Defense is a 501(c)3 nonprofit honoring veterans by organizing trips to notable combat zones, including Iwo Jima, Saipan, Honolulu and Vietnam, among other locations.
The group also offers transition assistance for active-duty service members and sponsors oral histories of veterans from all foreign wars.
Edwards said he plans to keep serving veterans and hopes to return to regular operations when appropriate.
“I’ve been taking veterans back to their battlefields for 14 years,” Edwards said. “It is important that we continue to give these men an opportunity to go back for commemorations, for the closure with their brothers, to feel the appreciation they deserve from their deeds 76 years ago.
“We need to make sure our next generation understands the sacrifices that so many veterans made to make this country what it is.”