The first stop on U.S. soil after a deployment is the airport. From there, it’s all downhill until you get to see your family and loved ones again. But the airport is its own scene when you’re a soldier in uniform.
On my trip home, I’m reminded of the last time I was in the airport—returning from Afghanistan after two weeks of “R and R,” or Rest and Relaxation leave.
In my memory I walk through the crowded Atlanta Airport. I am tired and feeling sorry for myself. I certainly do not want to shake hands and play the happy, grateful soldier one more time. I have to admit that I have become weary of the “thank you for your service” handshakes. I understand the sentiment and appreciate the gesture, but sometimes you just really need to get to the bathroom. When I see the group of elementary school students holding signs and clapping, my heart sinks. I need to go, not shake hands, but there seems no good way to avoid it; they have chosen the only clear path to the restroom to set up the greeting line.
I make a wide arc and head for my destination. Then from out of the crowd, a kindly-looking older lady in a USO shirt yells to me, “Sir, could you please come and talk to them, just a few words? It would mean so much!” All eyes are suddenly on me. I can’t avoid them now. My name is clearly emblazoned on my chest. I can see the headline, “Chaplain Tyger, U.S. Army, Runs Away from Children in Display of Ingratitude.” I turn and walk toward them.
“Hi guys. Where are you from? What are your names? What brings you out today?” I smile and do my duty.
“We just want to say thanks,” one student says. “We really appreciate your sacrifice.”
Frankly, I have never considered my service a sacrifice. I am well paid to do this job and I really love what I do, two things many people in this world cannot say. Privilege? Yes. Honor? Certainly. But sacrifice? It just doesn’t feel that way to me.
Nonetheless, I wade into the crowd of kids and make some of the typical small talk soldiers make in these situations. I share little pieces of information but never allow anything like a real conversation to develop. I guess there are some things only other soldiers will understand. The real sacrifices we make—the sorrow, the fear, the loneliness, the questions that will remain forever unanswered—these are not things we share in airports.
As I talk with the kids, I give my usual “I’m just a soldier” speech. I’ve recited it to many strangers in many airports. I tell them how much it means for them to come out to thank us and how important it is for us to hear that they appreciate our “sacrifice.”
I look at their faces as they gather in close, shake my hand, and ask their questions with wide-eyed curiosity. That is when something strange happens. I begin to feel my voice crack. A lump forms in my throat. My eyes feel strangely wet. The words become difficult to get out of my mouth. I really need to get myself out of there fast before I break down.
“Well, thanks guys. I really gotta go.....” are the only words I manage to squeak out as I turn and walk away.
Something about that encounter gets to me. Maybe it is that those kids remind me of my own. Maybe it is the genuineness of their appreciation or the way they seem to look up to me just because I wear a uniform. There is nothing special about me. I am just a guy lucky enough to wear a uniform and do a job I love. But for a moment, a fleeting moment, I feel truly appreciated for what I do in a more genuine way than I have ever felt before. That appreciation means something.
As I walk out of the bathroom, I think of all the big geopolitical issues I heard on the news at home. I think of the political pundits making ill-informed judgments about the “value of the mission,” “the chances of success,” and even “the ultimate meaning of soldiers’ sacrifices” (like they could really know about such things).
Looking in those kids’ eyes, all those questions vanished as I recognized a very simple truth: What we do matters. Whatever historians may write or pundits pontificate, what we do matters because we stand for more than any single mission, geopolitical strategy, or political goal.
Honor, devotion, loyalty, friendship, and yes, sacrifice have meaning and value far beyond what any TV talking head or politician may say in the moment. I think it was these values—which we have all, in some way, dedicated our lives to—that I saw in those kids’ eyes and that nearly brought me to tears (not an easy thing to do).
Now as I walk through an airport in uniform and I am greeted with “thank you for your service,” I can read more into what is being said. Maybe the uniform we wear reminds people that the sacrifices we make every day and will bear the rest of our lives, we make not for ourselves, and not for them, but for something greater than any of us may ever truly know or understand. Maybe they are saying, “Thank you for reminding us that, despite all the BS and confusion of life, there remain some truths that are truly worth fighting for.”