As many of my readers know, I am a veteran. I served for twenty years in the United States Air Force. I don’t make a big deal out of it. I don’t have regular contact with other veterans. I don’t belong to the American Legion or the VFW. Yet recently I was reminded in three very different and unexpected ways that being a veteran is something I can’t just put behind me.
Act 1: Denny’s, Parris Island, South Carolina – August 1, 2011
The man rode a Harley. He had it parked in the sparse shade at the edge of the parking lot. Also seeking shade, I pulled up beside him. We recognized each other as veterans ― him by his leather vest, me by my license plate. While my wife, Malette, got my granddaughter, Hannah, out of her car seat, we talked as if we were old friends rather than complete strangers. We compared assignments and jobs, the commonalities between our different branches of service.
When Malette came around the car with Hannah, he took it as his cue to leave and headed for the restaurant. By the time we went it, he was already seated, alone, in a booth by a window. The waitress guided us to a table, but as we followed her, he turned and our eyes met in a moment of recognition, acknowledgment. I wondered why he was alone while I had family. Was it by choice or circumstance? For the briefest moment I even thought about asking him to join us, but I didn’t.
It’s not easy to be alone on the road and I’m not sure if making contact is a blessing or a curse. No doubt that veteran just ate his lunch, hopped on his Harley, and was gone. What surprised me, and the reason I still think about this, was that sense of immediate comradeship and familiarity with a complete stranger. It’s something that I’ve never felt other than with another veteran. It stirs around in my mind and makes me want to know why.
Act 2: On the Indian River, Florida – August 5, 2011
We were aboard the Freedom piloted by Captain Greg Le Sieur. It was an evening cruise, comfortably sailing the Indian River. Greg is also our pastor at Christ Lutheran Church, but we had never really had a chance to get to know one another out of the church context. While we talked, Malette mentioned to him that I had been in the Air Force. What happened next surprised and made me uneasy.
“Thank you for your service,” he said. The words were well rehearsed, but sincere, something pastors say. He had said the same words from the pulpit on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. I had heard the words delivered to a congregation, but never to me personally. I didn’t know how I was supposed to respond. Was “you’re welcome” appropriate?
I still don’t know. I think I said something like “it was a good twenty years, I enjoyed it”, but I don’t think that was right. Being a veteran, I don’t think about being thanked for my service. It’s just something I did, but I can’t even tell you what factors other than the obvious ones― such as a steady paycheck, family medical, and retirement― made me stay in. Was it patriotism, a desire to serve my country, defending democracy? I don’t know. I don’t believe that most veterans give it much thought.
And actually, I don’t want to think about it. Because if I compare the sacrifices veterans make against the benefits they receive I would find myself questioning why I ever went in. I should just be happy that someone thought enough to say “thank you” and be satisfied with that.
Act 3: At a Rest Stop in South Carolina – August 20, 2011
Malette was driving. She pulled off I-95 so we could switch drivers. As we drove slowly through the parking lot my eyes met those of a gray-haired black gentleman wearing a military ball cap. I think it was Army, but I couldn’t make out the unit. As we approached, he must have seen the ‘U.S. Air Force Retired’ license plate on the front of my car, because he raised his right hand, delivered a loose salute, and smiled. I returned the salute and nodded. Then it was over. He was lost to the confusion of cars and people.
A little ways down we pulled into a parking space, switched drivers, and headed back to the road. The image of that moment of mutual respect and acknowledgement has stayed with me. It is likely to be with me for a very long time.
This isn’t the post I had originally started to write. When I thought about these three incidents what originally came to mind was a David Sedaris ‘This American Life’ kind of rambling folksy story, but as I’ve said before, what you intend and what you wind up with are a combination of inspiration and opportunity. I didn’t have the opportunity to capture it when the inspiration was full on, but I didn’t want to lose it completely. It’s not a bad piece and it may still provide the seed for something fuller in the future.
There is one final act to this tale though, and maybe it’s what the previous three were leading to. We laid my father to rest in Florida National Cemetery this past Monday with full military honors. A veteran of the Second World War, he seldom spoke about his service experience. He never made a fuss about it, but even though I can’t recall him ever attending a meeting, he always belonged to the VFW. One of the things he most wanted in his final years was to visit the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., but we could never make that happen for him. Even in his final years that same immutable bond that binds me to him and to all other veterans remained strong.
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