I was sitting in the Denver airport waiting for my flight home. I’d been attending a writers conference and a call had come in at 2 that morning telling me my dad’s stepbrother, a severely disabled vet, had suddenly passed away. I remember trying to read Deceived by James Scott Bell when a very tall, dark-haired soldier walked into my gate area.
My first thought was: He’s from my hometown National Guard unit! I need to go over and say thank you! Then I was hit by a fit of shyness and thought, he’ll think I’m trying to flirt with him and he’s probably got a wife and daughter waiting for him at home. So I stayed in my seat as he sat down across from me.
I couldn’t help glance at him over the top of my book from time to time. There was just something about him that had nothing to do with how handsome he looked in his uniform. I even caught him looking at me a couple of times with a curious expression on his face, though I was pretty sure it was because of the giant eye on the cover of my book.
Then our gate changed. All of us marched together, bags in hand, from one waiting area to another. The soldier was now sitting to my right and just behind along the window, and after a phone call with my mom I gave up even pretending to read anymore. That’s when I decided to throw away my Starbucks cup and finally noticed the name on his jacket: Ash.
Daniel. The little boy who ran to my aid in second grade when I got stung by a bee while on the monkey bars and fell. He wouldn’t let anyone near me but the Teacher’s Aid. Daniel, my brother’s superior officer in Civil Air Patrol during High School. I hadn’t seen him in years, but some random fluke put his luggage through another airport and him in Denver at the same time I was waiting to fly home. Even crazier was he remembered me.
Our gate changed a third time. We spent the remainder of our delay standing in a waiting area the size of a tuna can talking, me about my writing and youth activities, he about cars and his service. (I remember he kept instinctively moving me so I wouldn’t get trampled by others.) He was on leave for a month before heading back to Afghanistan. It was his third deployment, but he was considering volunteering for a fourth because he’s single and it would mean a husband and father wouldn’t have to go.
I’ve had several friends leave for active duty in the years since 9-11. I’ve been blessed in that every single one of them has returned and been physically whole. I also have numerous family members who have served. Some made it home but suffered the effects of war physically and mentally. Others gave their last breath. Each of them had the same attitude as Daniel. For them not serving was never an option. It was an honor and a privilege to guard and protect not just their loved ones, but strangers as well.
Daniel and I lost track of each other after landing. Two years passed and I wondered about his whereabouts from time to time. This summer while at a retirement party for one of his former Civil Air Patrol Senior Officers, my brother ran into him again and put us in touch with each other. We went out for a couple of drinks and ended talking into the wee hours of the morning about life. He’s Stateside again, but still active and plans to serve long-term. The fierce determination and protective instinct I saw in his eyes on the playground that day as kids is still clearly visible in his eyes.
So to Daniel, my friends and family, and every other veteran who has ever served: Thank you! Thank you for setting your safety aside to protect ordinary people like me.
To the families who have waited for loved ones to come home, and for those who are still waiting, I honor your sacrifice today, as well.