I was sitting here wondering which story to tell tonight when a flashing light on my blackberry signaled a message from my friend Jon, the managing editor at an Atlanta newspaper, wishing me a happy Veterans Day. I met Jon five years ago at a luncheon; he heard me refer to my recent deployment to Iraq when he was still a staff reporter and told me his employer might want to do a 1000-word piece on my “trip.” When I sent him copies of the bulk emails I’d sent home, they turned the article into a 3-part cover story that instigated more “letters to the editor” than any piece they’d written, eventually winning an award from the National Newspaper Association. So, we’ve been friends ever since.
In honor of Nov 11, here are some of the random kindnesses I’ve experienced while in uniform:
1) On the way home from Iraq earlier this year, we had a layover of sorts at Aviano AFB, Italy. We were corralled into a large hangar and told to wait while they refueled. No indication was given that this would be anything more than the cattle call to which we’d grown accustomed over the past few days of trying to get from Iraq to the States. When we walked inside, however, there were tables full of food, drinks, and smiling civilian family members who were there to tell us “thanks” and give us our first non-military-issued meal in months. It was a very welcomed, and very unexpected, treat.
2) I’ve been out to lunch several times since 2003 and had a random person walk up to me to say “thanks” and even buy my lunch.
3) I’ve walked into gas stations along the interstate after a National Guard drill weekend with my travel cup, seeking coffee, and have had my cash refused.
4) I’ve been told to move to the front of the grocery store line while in uniform (not on a base or post).
5) Southwest Airlines flew me from Nashville to BWI, where we were to catch the military rotator to Kuwait; the stewardesses gave my friend Shane and me all the free Heinekens we could drink, which was a lot.
6) I’ve been walking through the airport when this happened:
7) When Jessica Lynch came to Atlanta with Rick Bragg for a book signing, I decided to go. When I saw the line, I walked back to my car, pulled out of my parking space, and started to drive away. But before I turned out of the bookstore parking lot, I braked. I thought about whether or not I would regret not standing in line for a few minutes to see the girl I’d met several months prior in the desert. Yes, I would. I parked again and got in line. When my wait ended, I re-introduced myself to her, since she was barely coherent when I helped carry her from the ambulance to the C-17 that would carry her from Camp Wolf, Kuwait to Ramstein AFB, Germany. Rick Bragg, who won a Pulitzer Prize in ’96, shook my hand and told everyone at the bookstore who I was, and they all stopped what they were doing to give me a standing ovation.
8) One of my emails home during the ’03 deployment spoke of being unable to sleep, because, a few minutes before my head hit the cot, three soldiers came into the Emergency Room and found out the man they were inquiring about had died there an hour earlier, and the guy’s “battle buddy” ran outside the vestibule, fell to his knees, and howled his sorrows at the stars above. Throughout that night, I kept awaking to the sounds of his anguished screams and put myself in his position, wondering how I’d react if Shane were killed. My dad, a decorated Vietnam War aviator, wrote me back and said he was convinced that I had “become a man now. And a damned fine one at that.”