Next stop: France

Next stop: France

Leigh Swanson, who devoted nearly a quarter of her life to military service, is getting close to another “once-in-a-lifetime” experience that’s also wrapped around the armed forces experience.

Swanson, who lives in Bremerton, is one of 12 veterans who will travel to France this fall for visits to Paris and the beaches of Normandy to learn about the country’s intersecting history of World War II and art.

It will be a nine-day educational and cultural junket organized by Road Scholar, a not-for-profit organization that is a virtual university of the world by offering adventures for adults throughout the United States and in 100 other countries. Swanson’s trip is just for military veterans (active-duty or retired) and their travel companions.

From Sept. 28 to Oct. 6, the itinerary will include visits to the Musée de l’Armée (Army Museum) in Paris and a field trip to the Memorial de Caen, commemorating World War II’s “Battle for Caen.” The travelers will learn about the wartime occupation and liberation of Paris, famous impressionist French painters, and artwork that was protected and lost during the war.

Perhaps the most impactful day will be when the group visits Omaha Beach, walking in the footsteps of soldiers who landed there as part of D-Day invasion by Allied troops June 6, 1944, and the Normandy American Cemetery, where they will participate in a ceremony honoring the soldiers who died in the historic battle.

“This will be a once-in-a-lifetime occasion for the group,” said  Amale Bourhim, Road Scholar’s operations director in France. “Not only will we have a deeper study of the military history of every site we visit, but simply the experience of learning together with fellow veterans is sure to create camaraderie and a bond that will be memorable.”

Many Road Scholar participants on adventures of all kinds are veterans who are drawn to the opportunities to combine travel with military history, said Maeve Hartney, the organization’s chief program officer.

That was Swanson’s reaction when she heard about the Normandy trip. She knew immediately she’d be on it.

“Regardless of age, sex, or branch of service, there’s a bond that connects all veterans,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to visit Normandy, and the opportunity was too good to pass up.”

Swanson served in the Navy from 1979 to 1994–six years of active duty, and then in the Naval Reserve until her early retirement in 1994 as a lieutenant commander. She was a judge advocate (lawyer), launching her legal career.

“Looking back, 44 years down the road, joining the Navy was the single best decision I’ve ever made,” she said.

Swanson has become a regular traveler with Road Scholar. Starting in 2019, she has learned about ancient tribal cultures at Capitol Reef National Park in Utah and hiked Oregon’s Central Coast in 2022. She also has participated in online Road Scholar programs and lectures on subjects ranging from Greek gastronomy to African drums.

For the trip to France, she’ll be joined by her sister, Jeanie Ziegler. Of her four siblings, Swanson thought Ziegler would have the time and interest, and she was right. After Road Scholar announced last November on Veterans Day that the trip was available, “I called her and asked if she’d like to go to France. It took her about 20 seconds to say, ‘Sign me up,’” at least partly because she has visited Normandy once before and is “grateful” for a chance to do it again, Swanson said.

About 100,000 people a year sign up for Road Scholar ( trips, all of which are focused on experiencing life and the world at any age. Financial aid is available for participants who need some help paying.