I grew up in a very small town in Illinois. Our house was a block away from the American Legion, you could see the place from my front door. Even now, I can see the neighborhood in my mind, and the flag flying at the legion hall. As in many small towns, the legion hall was a center for a lot of activity. I have memories of time spent there drinking pop out of a bottle with skinny little straws, playing the bowling machine and spending time there with my father.
Like all American Legions, there was a flag pole out front, and the American flag proudly flew. I can remember helping my father take the flag down, and carefully folding the flag. I wasn’t very old when I first learned to fold a flag, and treat the flag with respect. I can remember many Memorial Days spent at the cemetery, the rattling of my senses at the 21 gun salute and the flags that covered the small town cemetery. It was Americana at it’s best, it’s what my view of this country was based upon. In a word, patriotism.
About a month ago, I saw that one of my Meetup groups was planning an outing to the DFW airport to welcome home the troops on Memorial Day. It tugged at my heart, and felt like a great way to spend the holiday. I’ve spent a lot of Memorial Days at cemeteries, to me it seemed time to thank those who serve face-to-face when they can appreciate my smile, and yes, my tears.
The information on the Meetup site gave instructions on what we could bring to the event. No homebaked goods, but we could bring pre-packaged items. Being my overachieving self I went out and gathered some items, and packaged them together in red, white and blue gift bags, tied with matching ribbon. I made little tags that said “Thank You!” and attached them to the bags.
I set my alarm for 6:00 a.m., it’s a good thing, the message for the flight time said the flight was now due at 7:30. I showered and made my way to the airport not exactly sure what to expect. I was one of the first people to arrive. There were some seasoned plane greeters there, so I talked to them about their experiences.
The first lady I crossed paths with was dressed in red, white and blue and was clearly a regular. She told me that she has been doing this for 6 years. I told her it was my first time, she told me, “you’ll be back.” She got up to help someone else and a gentleman sat down. He told me he had spent 8 years in the Navy. He has been coming for the last month every Saturday to welcome the troops.
People started filtering in, there were boy scout troops, church groups. veterans, Meetup groups, volunteers and family. I found myself a spot on the front row ready for this adventure to begin. As much as I would have loved to have hugged the stuffin’ out of each and every soldier coming off of the flight, we were instructed not to. In fact we were asked to yell and cheer, but not to engage the soldiers unless they initiated first. The flight was delayed 24 minutes due to storms in the area, I kept my spot, and stood there and waited.
There were all sorts of photographers and tv crews there. There were all sorts of people waving flags and patiently waiting for the troops to arrive. In the background someone had patriotic music playing, and I struggled to hold back the tears. I felt so much pride in my country, and all of those people who got up early on a holiday to do this. I could not help but reflect back on a different time. The war of my childhood, Viet Nam. I was not that old, but I’m still embarrassed at the way the returning soldiers were treated back then.
They directed the family members waiting to the front of the line. Cheers went up for the families, whose faces showed all kinds of expressions. The next group called to the front of the line were the veterans, who were easy to spot with their decorated vests. The terminal area was now filled with people, ready for the soldiers to come through the door.
I was further down the line, so I heard the cheers long before I saw the first soldier. It was quite a moment to see that first smiling face walk down the path way filled with people. To all of us they were rock stars. Around me I heard, “Thank you” “Welcome Home!” “Welcome to Texas!”. There were soldiers from the Army, the Marines and I really think they were surprised at the rowdy crowd there to welcome them.
I shook a few hands of soldiers and looked into their smiling faces and said, “Welcome home!” I struggled with tears as I watched families arm in arm with their returning soldiers. The father who waved his flag over head as he walked out with his son left me in a puddle of tears, he had tears in his eyes and he looked so proud.
I had given up my bag of *goodies* to a table with items people had brought for the troops. The bag was gone, and it make me smile that for 30 soldiers, I had added a smile to their day–close enough to a hug for me. I shared part of myself, I was part of something that was so much bigger than I could have ever imagined.
These troops come in to DFW every day of the week, not just on holidays. The lady this morning is right, I will be back. If you have ever had a doubt about the greatness of this country and the people that serve and protect our freedoms, I challenge you to experience this just once, and come away with anything other than pride in our country.
Today was about honoring the troops, those who serve, those who have served and those who have sacrificed for the freedoms that we enjoy today. After the last soldier had passed through the line, the veterans began to filter their way out of the airport. There were just as many hands reaching out to shake their hands. I shook every hand and said, “thank you.” I’m not sure that it makes up for the welcome that they did not receive when they returned from Viet Nam. Every one of them thanked me for coming out to do this today.
Reflecting on the drive home today, I realized that for me, this was about honoring the memory of a father and a mother and a stepfather who gave me a firm foundation of right and wrong. I’ve sent packages to the troops, to friends that have served in the military, but today really put things into perspective for me. I saw the faces, I saw the disbelief at the crowd of people and I saw their smiles–that my friend was a priceless moment that I plan to repeat-often.
“I like to see a man proud of the place in which he lives. I like to see a man live so that his place will be proud of him. ” ~Abraham Lincoln
….and from my friend Jeff Pulver….
Each day we have another chance to make a difference.
What will you do to make a difference?
I❤ America…every day, not just today.