A Soldier and the Flag
by Bob Jenkins
I was heading back to Boston from Phoenix after Christmas with my family. The flight from Phoenix to the layover in DFW was a non-event and left me with plenty of time to change terminals for the final leg. I walked from terminal to terminal, taking my time and enjoying the people watching that the massive airport offered. I was in no hurry.
When I reached my gate, I still had over an hour before my flight. For once, no hurry, no rush, no panic to beat the closing of the door. As the escalator descended, I saw from a distance all the people in and around the gate area waiting — moms, dads, kids, old men and women in wheelchairs, teenagers with green hair playing video games, and businessmen on cell phones. But as I looked around, I also saw a soldier, U.S. Army uniform, sitting alone, clutching an American Flag to his chest. He was leaning forward, elbows on his knees, clutching the flag tightly and staring into the distance. Instantly, I knew what he was doing and why.
I slowly approached him — he was maybe 21 or 22 years old — to say, “Sergeant, I’m sorry for your loss. I saw you on my way down the escalator. And as a former Marine, I know the burden you’re carrying.”
He looked up, still shell-shocked, and seemed to half see me. “Thank you,” he said, weakly. “I’m bringing home the remains of a fellow soldier to her family. She was killed by an IED in Iraq four days ago. She was in my platoon, we were on patrol and her Hummer got hit…”
“Where is her home,” I asked. “Boston, then to her family in New Hampshire to be buried.”
He voice had that softness to it that follows shock, almost peaceful. Yet, four days ago, he had been in Iraq, far from the pine forests of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Ninety-six hours ago, he was firing a weapon while being fired on, and watching men and women die in front of his eyes. Now, he was in a busy American airport, surrounded by happy jovial families returning home after the holiday with their families. One can only imagine the state of consciousness that such a contrast brings.
“God bless you, Sergeant, and may she be with her and her family. RIP.” Out of respect and honor, I walked away to let him be in peace and mourn alone.
I walked up to the gate counter and spoke to the flight attendant. “See that soldier sitting over there?” I said. “He is bringing home the remains of a soldier killed in Iraq. Can I make a request please?” She looked at me and over at the Sergeant and said “Yes, what is it?” “When we land in Boston, I’d like to request the Captain come on the PA and ask everyone on the plane to remain seated, to show respect and honor to the Sergeant and his fallen comrade until they are off the plane. He’s bringing her home to Boston, then up to New Hampshire to her family to be buried. It’s the least we can do to honor them both.” She looked at me and said “I’ll see what we can do, sir…”
We boarded the plane. I sat in the middle of the plane over the wings at a window seat. The Sergeant boarded, clutching the Flag like a child might a teddy-bear. As we approached Boston, I worried the word had not gotten to the Captain. I grew anxious and angry, and had I been in an aisle seat, I would have gotten up and asked the flight attendant again. But in this post-9/11 world, I was conscious not to behave in an aggressive way on an airplane.
As we made the final approach, the Captain came on the PA system and went over the usual rhetoric while landing. I slumped: he wasn’t going to do it. But as he was finishing up, his voice changed from the monotone of his previous delivery. “Folks, I’d like to ask everyone remain seated once we get to the gate. We have a soldier on board who is bring a fallen soldier home to her family here in the Boston area, and we’d like everyone to remain seated until he gets his belongings and deplanes the aircraft. Thank you for your consideration.” A huge wave of relief come over me. The girl next to me asked out loud “What is that about?” and I took a moment to explain it to her. She started to weep.
We taxied to the gate. Just as the plane was at a full stop, the Captain came on the PA again and repeated his request for everyone to remain seated, which everyone respectfully did, save one jerk who is lucky I didn’t have that aisle seat. With no one in his way, the Sergeant strode up the narrow path to the exit, all eyes on him, many heads bowed; total silence.
It’s the little things we can do in life, not for ourselves, but for others. But these gestures, gifts, and kind words are most meaningful when there is nothing wanted or expected in return. To this day, I think about the Sergeant and I hope he made it home to own his family safely. I often imagine a country cemetery in remote and beautiful New Hampshire with a small grave stone honoring this soldier who gave her life for her country. And I cry. There are so many who have made, and will continue to make, in Lincoln’s words, “the full measure of devotion” for what they believe in, and for us. And I pray that they risk their young lives for the right reasons, for today we are informed enough to know more about the interests of politicians and The Industrial War Complex in military conflict. But at moments like the one on that flight, that sense of indignation and frustration is secondary. On many days, I choose to feel the respect and honor for those who serve us. On the other days, I am vigilant to the deception, dishonorable, and greedy machinations of the forces that place young people’s boots on the ground in a foreign country.
R.I.P. to all those who have served and paid the ultimate sacrifice. God bless you all!