I was doing some amount of air travel over the holidays and, as one will do, found myself with layovers in both Dallas and Atlanta in the last 60 days. These are obviously major hubs and you see an amazing array of humanity there.
A lot of that humanity is wearing camouflage uniforms.
Mostly they’re young, though I saw more than one person who was my age, plus or minus. They are black, white, Hispanic, Asian, male, female. At a gas station along I-40, Lisa saw a young uniformed woman wearing Muslim head-garb.
In short, they are us.
Only their job is to keep the rest of us safe and secure. It goes without saying that some of them have been around when IEDs have gone off, many have lost friends and colleagues to IEDs, and many have had to kill other human beings.
And most of them are younger than my elder son.
My friend, Tommy Angelo, recently wrote a wonderful blog piece about gratitude – you might want to read it. It crystallized a lot of what I’d been thinking when I saw these people in the airports and gas stations.
I mean, you don’t have to agree with the wars they’re involved in. Personally, I have deep reservations about our being in Afghanistan; the parallels to Vietnam are all too close for my comfort. But the young folks I see in camo at DFW and ATL are not making the decision to be in Kandahar Province; if asked, they’d probably say, “That’s way above my pay grade, sir.” I believe we need to recognize the difference between the war and the warrior.
So I have started to do something for them, and for me, when the opportunity presents itself. If I am getting something to eat or drink in the airport and there’s a uniformed service member next to me, I’ll tell the clerk, “His/hers is on me, please.”
I’ve noticed some interesting things happen when I do this:
- The clerks never seem terribly surprised by this. They almost invariably smile, but it’s like they’ve seen it before. I am warmed by the thought that others have beat me to the idea.
- The soldiers are polite and grateful. Almost without exception, they say, “Thank you, sir.”
- Other customers notice it, even if it’s done very subtly. At DFW over Thanksgiving, the guy behind me (a civilian) thanked me for buying the latte for the uniformed kid in front of me. “You’re welcome,” I said, “pass it on.”
And then there’s the value for me. At the Atlanta airport a few nights ago, Lisa and I were waiting for the flight home to Asheville. There was a uniformed serviceman, looked to be in his early 20′s, eating a piece of pizza by himself and reading email on his Blackberry. I went to Seattle’s Best to get coffee for myself. I also bought the last brownie they had – a monster of a pastry loaded with chocolaty goodness. On my way back to Lisa, I walked by the young man, not ten feet from us, put the bag next to him and said, “Happy new year.”
He smiled and said, “Thank you, sir; happy new year to you.” After he’d finished his pizza, he glanced inside the bag. His eyes widened. “Oh my god.” He looked over at us and thanked me again. About then, a young uniformed woman stopped by – they obviously knew each other; they were comparing notes on their holiday travel. He showed off his newly acquired dessert and they shared it as they showed off family photos on their smart-phones.
I told Lisa that I wished every investment I made got the return I did on the $2.50 for that brownie.