COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France -- While the United States women's national team continued its preparations for a World Cup game against Sweden on Thursday in Le Havre, the players' friends and family members visited nearby Omaha Beach and the Normandy American Cemetery on Tuesday.
And they didn't have just any tour guide.
An American veteran of the Normandy invasion in World War II, Steve Melnikoff spoke to the group as it first visited one of the windswept beaches where Allied troops came ashore in June 1944, and then the cemetery where more than 9,000 Americans who died in the invasion are buried.
Melnikoff was also among a group of World War II veterans who spoke with U.S. players when they visited the same sites before playing a game in Le Havre this past January.
"It was the most humbling thing I think I've ever been a part of and heard," Carli Lloyd told U.S. Soccer at the time of the first trip. "They've literally saved the world."
USWNT families toured Omaha Beach and the Normandy American Cemetery, where they joined 99-year-old WWII veteran Steve Melnikoff in this memorial ceremony. pic.twitter.com/inNtYO26vC— Graham Hays (@grahamhays) June 18, 2019
Now 99, Melnikoff was 24 when he came ashore with the 175th Regiment of the U.S. Army's 29th Infantry Division on June 7, 1944, a day after the D-Day invasion began. He told the group about being struck by a bullet near his shoulder 10 days later during continuing operations near the beaches. A representative of The Greatest Generations Foundation, the non-profit group that brings veterans back to areas like Normandy to raise awareness of their efforts, noted it was one of two times Melnikoff was wounded in action.
After visiting Omaha Beach and asking Melnikoff questions, the group took part in a ceremony at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. Assisted by Austin Rapinoe, nephew of Megan Rapinoe, Melnikoff helped lay a red, white and blue wreath of flowers in the shape of a soccer ball at the foot of a sculpture in the cemetery's memorial area.
An energetic and engaging storyteller, Melnikoff joked about his age. He intends to play at the famed St. Andrews in Scotland later this summer and noted golf is the only sport a person can still play at 99 -- even though he insists he plays like he's 90.
But for someone who said he wasn't ready to return to Normandy for the first time until the 60th anniversary of the invasion, he also spoke earnestly of hoping his words and stories outlive him to honor those who never came home.
"There was a job to do," he said. "And we had to do it."