He’s been studying and reading about it all his life.
In fact, he comes from a family of military men, with his grandfather having served in the Navy, his dad in the Army and his uncle serving in Special Forces in Vietnam.
Hicks especially knows a lot about World War II, which is why it is poignant for him to have been selected to go on a special Army trip to remember the soldiers who fought, and some who lost their lives fighting on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
In fact, he loves the military so much he is currently a warrant officer with the 861st Quartermaster Army Reserve Company out of Nashville. The 861st is a parachute rigger company. A Cleveland native, Hicks has been in the military for almost 20 years and has more than 100 parachute jumps to his credit.
“I always wanted to jump,” said the shy, self-effacing and unassuming Hicks.
Officially, he has the MOS (or Military Occupational Skill) of an airdrop systems technician, which means he packs parachutes. Before his current duty station, Hicks was in the Tennessee National Guard and in the regular active duty Army stationed out of Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
His wife understands the military and what’s involved.
“I was an Army brat,” said Sara Hicks. Now she is an Army wife and wholly supports and admires what her husband is doing. She is particularly proud of her husband commemorating the joint annual D-Day celebrations. Only master-certified parachutists can jump. The events are conducted in conjunction with the forces from several countries, including England, Germany, Holland, Norway and Italy, among others. “I’m very proud of him.”
“It’s an official Army trip,” Hicks said.
The first time he went was in 2008, the second in 2011, and the third will be this year. Many of the celebrations and events and parachute jumps — that’s where Hicks comes into the picture — are at significant sites that played key roles on D-Day — 68 years ago this year.
Hicks has visited Sainte-Marie Eglise, the first town liberated by the troops who landed on the beaches of Normandy during those early morning hours. In fact, there is a stained glass window that now has an image of a paratrooper on it paying homage to the World War II soldiers. And, as part of the D-Day ceremonies, an effigy of a man is also hung from the steeple of this same church to remember the paratrooper who got caught on the steeple that fateful day. He was shot in the foot while he was suspended there but survived to make it back to the states.
Hicks met an old soldier, one of the medics who was actually treating wounded at this same church, at one of the ceremonies at the church where the old medic helped save lives seven decades earlier.
“The D-Day celebrations are a big deal over there ...” Hicks said. “It’s a carnival atmosphere. It’s pretty neat every year.”
But D-Day back in 1944 wasn’t anything like what folks may have seen in movies like “Saving Private Ryan,” Hicks said. Many of the troops were just mowed down in their tracks at the beacheads. One reason is because it was low tide and there was a large expanse of beach between where the soldiers were dropped off in waist-high water — being weighed down by their heavy wool uniforms and their packs — and the distant dunes.
Hicks remembers standing on Omaha Beach.
“I went to the water’s edge and looked back,” he said. “The soldiers had to walk several hundred meters ... I could hear the waves crashing ... they were so far away.”
Another reason the military campaign was so dangerous was because the German gun turrets were built at an angle, making it almost impossible for sharpshooters to hit the German shooters inside. And a third, a crack German troop unit just happened to be conducting war games at Normandy at the same time as the invasion.
Hicks will leave for Europe soon, starting his trip with other American soldiers being loaded onto C130 transport planes, landing first in Portugal, and then in England, where Hicks will jump with British forces. Then, back into the C130s and across the channel to Normandy on June 3. Ceremonies will be conducted on both Omaha and Utah beaches. Both the American 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions landed across Normandy. The Canadians landed on Juno Beach. The English, the 1st division, were on the extreme left flank. Ceremonies are also planned at the big American cemetery filled with slain American soldiers, and also at Pegasus Bridge, where British troops held down the German troops and kept them from moving forward. Pointe du Hoc, where German fortifications were located on top of the cliffs, is another major site.
“It’s one thing to read about it,” he said. “It’s another to be there and feel like it is really happening ... it is overwhelming ... those soldiers did a great job ... it’s something people shouldn’t forget.”
During one of his two previous trips, Hicks remembers one especially moving moment when a trumpet player sounded “Taps” at the American cemetery where around 6,000 American troops are buried. The trumpet player’s uncle was buried in this cemetery.
“I’ll jump with the Dutch this year,” Hicks said. Jumpers get badges with the different units they jump with, and give out American badges to those who jump with them. In fact, from his previous two trips, Hicks now has badges from England, Honduras, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Chile and Australia.
Hicks not only jumps as part of specific events, but also helps coordinate other jumps between units from other countries and also between the two other U.S. parachute rigger companies — the 421st out of Fort Valley, Ga., and the 824th out of Fort Bragg.
There are only three parachute rigger companies in the entire Army Reserves. Hicks’ unit includes more than 80 paratroopers with only a few of them being jumpmasters. Jumpmasters are the ones that are in charge of the Airborne operation. The 921A MOS is a very small community with less than 100 of them Armywide and with less than 10 in the Army Reserves.
Hicks sheepishly shies away from making what he is doing the focus.
“I’m just getting on an airplane ... this is all for the guys who did all this years ago,” Hicks said. “I just want people to remember and commemorate the soldiers who landed on Normandy Beach on D-Day and honor them.”