Virginia students can learn from ‘The Greatest Generation’

March 2, 2023 12:04 am

Alex Kershaw, author of The Bedford Boys, on Omaha Beach in Normandy, where on D-Day (June 6, 1944), American and British troops launched an attack on German-occupied France during World War II. (John Snowdon )

By Alex Kershaw

Last week marked the one-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine. While the war drags on, democracy continues its long decline. Less than half the world’s population lives in a democracy of some kind according to The EconomistsDemocracy Index.

I have been enormously blessed in my lifetime. I grew up in a free country during the longest period of peace that Western Europe has ever known – the decades since the end of the Second World War. I was fortunate that I also eventually had the great privilege of meeting many men and women from Virginia who gave everything they could muster to defend democracy and freedom. 

While writing books about the Second World War, notably “The Bedford Boys,” which tells the story of the enormous sacrifice made on D-Day, June 6, 1944 by the community of Bedford, Virginia, I was incredibly inspired and moved. Hardly any of the extraordinary Virginians who fought in WWII are alive today. All too soon, there will not be a single survivor from Virginia who witnessed great battles such as that on D-Day, who can tell us what it was like to serve and sacrifice in such momentous times. There will be no more men and women of that generation to teach and inspire and remind Virginians of what makes a state and a nation truly great and why democracy is so incredibly precious.     

Working with the nonprofit organization Friends of the National World War II Memorial since 2021, I’ve been visiting high schools in Virginia, developing a unique program called Character Is Destiny. It’s an amazing privilege to do what I do: motivate teenagers in high schools across Virginia by telling the stories of men and women I’ve known and hugely admired. This is what all the heroes and heroines I’ve met from Virginia would want me and other storytellers to be doing – keeping the spirit of their generation alive by going into classrooms and reaching young hearts and minds.     

It’s vitally important to inspire today’s young Virginians to meet new challenges, to serve others, and to unite and to be proud of their state, their country, and their history. We hear so much negativity and hopelessness about the younger generation today. Through my travels across the state, I am witnessing firsthand how earnest and hopeful they really are. Young people are hungry for inspiration and want to serve others. 

More than ever, young Virginians need and want role models. They respond with great enthusiasm when they learn what their forebears overcame and achieved in WWII. By actually stepping into classrooms, with the support of private and public resources, we’ve been impacting more and more young Virginians. This week, I’ll speak with students at Poquoson High School in Poquoson, Grafton High and York High in York County. Virginia teachers, administrators and students, if you’d like your school included in our program, get in touch through the Friends of the National WWII Memorial website. Our mission is to make sure one of the most inspiring chapters in U.S. history is taught in as many Virginia high schools as possible. In doing so, we’re making sure amazing Virginians like the Bedford Boys are never forgotten – and motivating today’s young Virginians to become the next great generation.    


Alex Kershaw is a New York Times best-selling author and resident historian for Friends of the National WWII Memorial, a non-profit based in Washington D.C.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Guest Column
Guest Column

Views of guest columnists are their own. To submit an op-ed for consideration, contact Commentary Editor Samantha Willis at [email protected].