I would like to take a moment to tip my hat and salute not only my fellow sister and brother veterans but also to honor those special active duty Americans who lay down their lives each and everyday to keep our Republic whole, safe and intact. (Law Enforcement and Fire Fighters included)
The video, below, speaks to an ever dwindling group of special veterans that I had the distinct pleasure of serving with and I must say, it speaks to the core of our suffering, sadness and disillusionment; they are the Veterans of the Vietnam Era.
Unlike other armed conflicts where the returning troops were greeted with open arms, we were enemies of the people and shunned by the American public. While serving in the early seventies I was pushed, provoked, spit upon and even in one case, had rocks thrown at me while in uniform. Not what I expected and not something easy to live with.
But when the ugly specter of Desert Shield and ultimately Desert Storm reared it’s ugly head I eagerly sought redemption and steered myself straight for active combat as an Aero-medical Evacuation Medic with the USAF.
I was set free and cleansed by the the patriotic embrace my country gave back to me and I vowed to share that glow with the younger troops who would follow as there is no such thing as a veteran; we are all active duty in our hearts and we continue to serve as best we can.
With that in mind; several years ago I had an opportunity to speak from my heart to a young troop who crossed my path; I seized the moment versus letting it slip by.
During boarding on my bi-monthly connecting flight from Houston to Chicago and then on to Beijing I was seated in First Class, sipping on a Bloody Mary knowing that I would not be having another in China, when a very young service member passed my seat on his way to the back of the plane.
It was a “deer in the headlights” moment when he glanced around First Class and our gazes locked. I nodded to him, feeling somewhat embarrassed for my comfort and perhaps pretentiousness, and he only opened his eyes up wider and turned to stare towards the back of the plane. I noted that he only had one chevron (stripe) on the collar of his BDUs (Battle Dress Uniform) and surmised that he was straight out of boot camp and headed to his first assignment, where that might be I did not know.
Likewise, his look of awe and wonder, as he entered the aircraft, told me that he had not traveled much and this was a very new and potentially frightening experience. His presence and appearance shot me back to my early years and I felt great empathy and compassion for this young soldier; so I pondered this thought as I sipped my adult beverage.
While deep in memories I called over the First Class flight attendant, ordered another drink and asked if it might be possible for me to swap seats with the young man and give him First Class treatment on his way to his next assignment.
She at first gave me a scowl as I could see her contemplating the additional work and/or changes in her work tasks but after a moment she warmed up to the idea and asked me to wait until the plane was fully loaded and then we would address the proposal.
True to her word, when the door to the aircraft was finally closed she came over to me and said, “The captain has approved your request and will hold the plane at the gate while you go back and make the switch.”
I immediately set my glass down on the tray, stood up and headed down the aisle to the back of the plane while every single passenger on the aircraft gave me a quizzical stare.
Several rows before I reached the Airman we locked eyes and I could see the same confusion and awe begin to surface again. When I reached him he was about in full panic mode as everyone, including the flight crew, was watching us.
I extended my right hand and said, “Thank you for your service, sir. Would you like to fly First Class today?”
His response was a very nervous combination of an affirmative nod and a shaking of the head in the “no” fashion with the end result of his head going in circles.
“I take that as a yes. Undo your seat belt and head towards the flight deck, Airman, there’s a qualified flight attendant waiting to seat you.”, I said and with that I still had him by the hand and pulled him to his feet while whispering, “Thanks, again, for your service.”
A slight nudge urged him forward up the center aisle of the aircraft while I squeezed into the Economy seat that by no means accommodated my 6’2″ frame but for several hours, I could tough it out.
As I clicked my seat belt closed I heard the building of applause as that lone Airman walked forward up that aisle. There was not one person on that flight who was not clapping, standing or calling out to him and he had no choice but to wave, nod and smile as he was being blessed by an outpouring of compassion and care by those who shared the aircraft with this special young man.
I smiled and my heart warmed as I was poked in the ribs by a young woman next to me who responded with a thumbs up.
“It’s all good,” I replied, “It’s all good.”
I did not see that young man when I exited the aircraft, as he left prior to me, but I was greeted by the flight crew who was waiting for me at the forward exit hatch. Pilot, co-pilot and flight steward were there and the Captain reached out to shake my hand and said, “Our service never ends, does it my friend, it never ends?”
With a bit of blurred vision, due to leaking eyes, I clasp his hand and we pulled each other forward and hugged for a moment. I felt a few pats on the back, released the captain, gave a gracious bow and said, “Thank YOU for your service.” I then spun on my heel, walked out the door and noted that I had just experienced a lifetime moment that I would never, ever forget.
Today, it is my hope that the young soldier, who received a standing ovation for his service, carries that warmth in his heart; that he is alive, well and will take that experience and pay it forward for others who are lucky enough to still be living after pledging to ensure that you and I can live a life of liberty and freedom, forever.
God Bless those who serve; may the Lord look over you and yours. Our prayers are with you.
Happy Veteran’s Day my sisters and brothers.