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The Silence of Soldiers

Lexey Swall/Stringer/Getty Images

At the end of an annual girl’s trip to New York in the summer of 2005, I shared an airplane with several servicemen returning home after serving in Iraq. They were dressed in army fatigues, but their giddy, boyish behavior made them appear more as adolescents as opposed to hardened military men.

As our plane taxied down the tarmac, a male flight attendant offered the customary end-of-flight instructions that everyone ignored before pausing a moment and offering a welcome home to the eight servicemen on our flight. He shared the name of their battalion, their tour length and asked everyone on the plane to join him in a round of applause as a gesture of appreciation for their sacrifice.

I could see the focused attention had embarrassed a few of the soldiers. Their pink cheeks bloomed with discomfort and while some appeared to handle the scrutiny better than others, all wore broad smiles and their heads were lowered in humility. Though their behavior was modest, their satisfaction with their country, each other and most importantly themselves, was evident.

I joined the flight attendant and clapped with enthusiasm, anticipating a raucous celebration that never came. Based on the smattering of applause, perhaps four passengers -maybe five- clapped for the men. An uncomfortable silence settled over the cabin and the shoulder’s of our bravest drooped. They appeared as small as they’d been made to feel.

Bewildered, I looked around. The animosity visible on the majority of faces staring in the soldiers direction, was jarring. I caught the glance of a middle-aged gentleman sitting across the aisle. His starched collar, sweater-vest and dark-rimmed glasses gave a professorial impression. The mortification and hurt I felt on behalf of the men was mirrored in his expressive eyes. We both reached out to the uniformed shoulders in front of us.

I’ll never know what the gentleman said to the dark-haired soldier, but the young man seemed to accept the sincere words offered to him. I spoke to the serviceman closest to me, but his discomfort was evident. The rejection of his cabin mates must have stung and his demeanor suggested he accepted my words as those offered out of pity.

Tears pricked my eyes. There was no way to fix this sad state of affairs or erase the dejection cloaking the group. Perhaps the soldier was right and my words were borne form sympathy but my motive was heartfelt.

Passengers were given permission to exit the airplane and they lined up to greet the lives waiting for them outside of the pressurized cabin. Impatient with the chaos of people  reaching into overhead bins and fighting for a place in line, I remained seated. Once the free-for-all was over, I set about gathering my belongings when a gentle tap on my arm drew my attention. My new friend in the smart sweater-vest offered a bemused smile. ‘Thank you for doing that,’ he offered. I felt uncomfortable but instantly aware of how my words must have made the solider feel a few moments before.  I swallowed the objection that I’d only done what my duty as an American demanded I do.  I sensed his desire to ‘make things right’ was similar to my own thwarted efforts earlier so I just smiled and acknowledged his thanks. Apparently satisfied, he nodded, claimed his place in line and exited the plane.

I’ve never seen him or those soldiers since, but I’ve never forgotten the treatment our heroes received on that airplane. I guess in some ways I’m still trying to ‘fix’ that night . I often urge my children to thank those who don a uniform. ‘You can’t depend on everyone to do the right thing so don’t wait. Just do it,’ they often hear.

Veteran’s Day is a holiday worthy of our brave military who have fought in the theater, but I’m not sure if one day is enough to compensate the humiliation some are subjected to by the selfish hoards of citizenry who can’t be bothered.

Let us honor our heroes on Veteran’s Day. And Thanksgiving Day. And Boxing Day. On Tuesday’s and Friday’s; also when we celebrate birthdays. A country who does not honor her brave, is a country who does not deserve them.

Thank you, Veterans. For everything.

 

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