There is something about a soldier that fascinates and attracts. I think it has to do with the soldier’s commitment and the fact that he puts his life on the line for a cause. Of course, not just any soldier fits the bill. It is the combat soldier that really attracts attention and sparks great interest.
As I got on the plane for a short commuter flight into Baltimore, I could not help but notice the man in the sandy camouflage uniform going down the aisle. I thought about how interesting it would be to talk to him since he might have been in Iraq.
No sooner had I sat down, when the Army soldier sat down in front of me. He was barely twenty-one, tall and lanky. His short haircut and wire-rimmed glasses fit with his military bearing. He was very serious and pensive.
I couldn’t resist. I just had to start a conversation. I felt that, politics aside, I had to encourage him and express my admiration for his sacrifice and sense of duty. However, before I could tap him on the shoulder, a middle-aged man next to him beat me to it.
“We’re proud of you,” he said. “You’re doing a good job.” He let lose with a string of questions and I soon joined him from behind with a few questions of my own.
It turns out this soldier was indeed stationed in Iraq. He was home for a two-week furlough and was on his way back. He had fought in northern Iraq and now was engaged in the dangerous Sunni Triangle.
He was a simple soldier, very forthright and frank in his commentary. He was humble about his job and did not complain about his posting. He was doing his duty and that was what was important. He even said that he was anxious to get back to his unit since he was getting a little bored with the inaction at home.
As we were talking, I was impressed with how different this scene was from the Vietnam era. What I was witnessing was not hostility toward the military but an impressive outpouring of support from the passengers and crew. Something about his sacrifice touched those around him. Something about his pensive seriousness was strangely contagious.
As the stewardess came around handing out the peanuts for the short flight, she stopped by the young soldier and handing him all the peanuts she had left. “Here take these, that’s all I have to give you but you can eat them on the way there.” Later she came back and in a motherly fashion rubbed him on the shoulder wishing him good luck and telling him to come back safely.
He talked about his stay at home. The mayor of his town gave him a $150 certificate to spend in the area. Others had likewise been supportive. And through it all, he was so unassuming.
Perhaps what touched me the most about the conversation was how the trials of war had changed this young man. I perceived that not all was well at home and there were some family problems. However, in his trials his family became the most important thing in his life.
At one point, he said he looked at his mother and told her that he was sorry for all the bad things he had done when growing up.
When I heard this, I could not help but make the contrast. On my flight down to Florida, I sat next to a group of college students on their way down to the Caribbean. They were laughing and joking the whole way down in contrast to this soldier alone with his thoughts. The soldier had grown up and matured while the students were off to play. He had faced the reality of life and death. They were escaping to islands of fun and games. He found out what were the most important things in life — his faith and family. The students were living life for the moment.
As the short 36 minute flight touched down, the conversation ended. As we were getting up, the man next to the soldier slipped him a five dollar bill telling him to get himself a drink. When he tried to refuse, the man insisted and would not take no for an answer. Other passengers engaged him in conversation as he worked his way up the aisle.
As we left the plane, the crew mechanically wished us all happy holidays. However, when the soldier neared the door, the crew member broke all protocol and effusively exclaimed: “God bless you and may He be with you over there. Come back safely!”
In this vale of tears, there will always be suffering, evil and conflict. And for this reason there will always be soldiers. In face of the evils confronting society, there will always be those who must put their lives on the line. They make the supreme and sublime sacrifice so that others might live in peace. That is why we honor them.
While it is horrible to think that some will die, most will return changed. They will understand something of the tragedy of life and know how to value those things that are most important.
There were also passengers who did not like the soldier. To them, he represented a terrible reality that they would like to forget. While they dared not manifest themselves in the plane, they kept an uneasy glance over our way.
As I walked into the terminal, a passenger somewhat sourly remarked: “We sent boys to fight our wars.”
I could not help but respond: “Yes, and when they come back, they are men.”