Living in America it’s easy to forget that we are in the middle of a war. There are no car bombs on our freeways; no soldiers from another nation with another agenda on our soil, our buildings remain erect and our lives secure. In our world of celebrity, youth worshiping ignorance, we are blind to the damage our nation inflicts globally.
For me, the reality of the war was hammered into my consciousness last week as I traveled across the country to Virginia Beach. On the plane, off the plane, and everywhere in between, were soldiers – cute, pink-cheeked boys, with their ironed uniforms and shiny buttons pinned to their lapels. It all looked so old fashioned, like those black and white movies that took place during World War I and II; but I guess the image of soldiers is timeless. There was one guy who stood out. His clean-cut blonde hair and 6’2″ frame made him the poster boy for the American soldier. As he walked onto the plane a strange tension filled the cabin. I watched as people changed positions in their seats, seemingly uncomfortable and proud all at once. There he was looking so handsome and as American as apple pie! And you could see our collective pride swelling for “our boys,” but with that pride came the reminder of the war, the reminder of thousands of American boys, just as young and vibrant as him, who’ve died. And, of course, the easier to swallow, hundred thousand or so Iraqi civilians that have also perished. It made us uncomfortable. Like those tests for the emergency broadcast system with their high- pitched siren, we were all briefly de- railed from our favorite form of escape. The soldier ambled over to his seat, aware of the attention, but obviously used to it, and sat down.
Five hours later, as we exited the flight, I saw a family of about four or five people huddled together waiting anxiously by the gate. In their white knuckled hands were balloons and welcome home signs, drawn in careful script with colorful markers. I couldn’t help but sneak a peak as the handsome soldier greeted them with a warm, yet awkward embrace. He stood looking all at once like a child and an old man. His eyes seemed to yearn for those years of bedtime stories and goodnight kisses, yet his body remained stiff and in control. He stooped down to hug his mom who smiled, attempting to mask her sad eyes.
As I walked out into the airport I looked at my fellow airline buddies. There was the guy who sat next to me with the fetid smell of last night’s rum seeping out of his pours. He was now chumming it up on his fancy phone with a colleague. There was the older couple who tottled out holding each other up for support. And the L.A-ified girl with her Chanel sunglasses and a copy of “People” tucked safely under an arm. Everyone was pulling out cell phones while they tugged their black suitcases behind them. They were now too busy to notice the nervous family with their balloons and carefully crafted signs, their one confrontation with war a brief blip in their busy lives.
And then he was out of my eyesight and life. I went on to continue with my own busy day. No better than my flight companions, just as consumed with my own selfish concerns. Perhaps just as eager to forget this soldier’s fragile future, I pulled out my cell phone and he disappeared, becoming a symbol of America that I can throw away and pull out only when convenient.
How easy it is to forget – until you cannot forget anymore… and then it’s too late.