I’m sitting in the Atlanta airport waiting for colleagues to fly in from Chicago. We’ll meet up and head to the hotel for a conference. Nothing I haven’t done before and so have many of you.
But this flight and wait are different. I dropped my son off at the airport a few hours before I took off. We both made the flight from Nashville to Atlanta. But while I’m staying in Atlanta, my son has finished up his US Army basic training in South Carolina and his AIT in Virginia and is reporting to Ft. Stewart and Hunter Army Air Field in Savannah, GA to his first duty station.
As I write these words, just 4 feet away, is a long line of Army soldiers and the occasional Navy, Marine or Air Force guy passing through Atlanta. That’s the difference in this trip. From the time I dropped off my son, through my own flight and now my wait here, I’m surrounded by soldiers. It’s an indescribable feeling. There was even some comic relief. On my flight, the flight attendant announced that no one should attempt to open the door to the flight deck for any reason. I turned to the 15 year veteran next to me and smiled. I said, “Like anyone would be stupid enough to try that on a flight filled with you guys!” He just grinned a predatory grin and nodded.
On my flight, the troops were welcomed over the intercom by the flight attendants and flight crew before we took off and wished “Bon Voyage” after we landed. Most of the civilian passengers applauded the mention of the troops. On the ground here in Atlanta, I can tell when a new group of soldiers is about to round the corner and join the gathering in front of me because the applause on the concourse is audible before the troops are visible. It’s like my favorite Budweiser commercial.
Each group of soldiers is escorted by USO volunteers. I took a moment to thank one of those ladies for serving our soldiers and she simply said it was her pleasure to serve. It is comforting to know my son was met in the same fashion. I wondered how his day would be when I dropped him off. He was headed to a new post, a new place and a new profession. There was nothing I could do to change whatever it held, but a father worries, too.
Most of the troops I flew with were on their way back to Iraq. Most were from Ft. Campbell as evidenced by their Screamin’ Eagle insignia. They were home for their two week, mid-tour leave. I learned today that each soldier gets a two week leave in the middle of his or her deployment. We bring our sons and daughters home to be with their families in the midst of their deployment to liberate and protect the children of others. Our enemies strap bombs on their children and send them to die in the midst of crowds of innocents while killing the children of others. The difference stands distinct in my mind.
I was speaking to my son by cell phone when the last group of soldiers passed by my seat near baggage claim. Watching them revealed an entirely different way in which I’m proud of my boy and why I so readily dismiss those who denigrate our troops.
In many ways, the lines of soldiers were just like any other group of travelers. They were tired and cramped from their flight. They were weary from wringing out precious hours with family by skimping on sleep. They carried themselves soberly. Most were heading back into a war zone. They knew what awaited them once they left the relatively friendly confines of CONUS. But there were no complaints, no cutting in line, no grumbling. There was no evidence of profanity or crudity at all. These men and women were professional. Other groups of passengers were loud, disruptive and disrespectful. One woman stood out. She walked across the terminal loudly talking on her cell phone. Her impossible-to-not-hear conversation was laced with profanity and vulgarity. In stark contrast, the soldiers were polite, gracious and thankful to the USO volunteers and seemed to appreciate the applause and kindness and respect from the strangers they passed by. In short, they were soldiers.
I’ve seen many a group of travelers and many a group of colleagues gather to pass time or just to pass through. I’ve never seen one as honorable as these troops. And worthy of honor. These weren’t special troops in an elite group. They were just the mix of soldiers it was my privilege to witness. To think my son is one of these men and women. He’s been home on leave after his school and so much of him still seems the same young man he was when he left – young, foolish and immature. But it’s also very true that something happens when he puts on his uniform. I know it’s silly, but it reminds me of nothing so much as Clark Kent heading for the phone booth. He really is different when in uniform as opposed to civvies.
Most of us hope and pray our sons and daughters will one day be better men and women than we are. Watching the troops pass by me in the airport today I was struck by the realization that, in a multitude of ways, my 19 year old son has already surpassed me. It was more than a bit of a shock, but it’s true nonetheless.
And I’m just fine with that … Hooah!!