Tuesday, February 19, 2013
I was exhausted and ready to sleep on a two-hour flight to visit my mom. But as soon as I settled in my seat, I could tell I was next to a “chatter”.
“I haven’t flown in awhile,” the young guy seated on my right says to my profile.
I turn to him with a cold smile and say, “It won’t be bad. We’ll be there before you know it.” Then I turn to the window and shut my eyes. There’s silence for about 20 minutes, then…
“Is this bothering you?”
I blink a couple of times and turn to him.
“My music. Is it too loud? My girlfriend – well my ex – my ex-girlfriend hated for me to play my music so loud that she could hear it from my headphones.” He motions to the large, sound-canceling headphones wrapped around his neck.
“No, it’s fine. I’m good. Enjoy.” I snuggle even closer to the window, hoping to give him the sign that I want silence.
“Yeah, I have to play it loud because I’m deaf in my right ear.”
Sighing inwardly, I sit up and turn to him in defeat. It’s obvious he wants to talk and I’m chosen to listen. “Yeah?” I say with pretend interest.
“Yeah, when the bomb went off I got shrapnel in my arm and leg and now I’m deaf in my right ear. My best friend saved my life shielding my body.”
“You were in the military?” I ask with a little more interest.
“Yeah – the army. My best friend is – was - a Marine. Three of our friends were killed in the blast and most of us on the truck were injured.”
“Yeah, even crazier, my best friend came home and was killed last week by a drunk driver. That’s why I’m flying down here… for his funeral.”
I don’t have a response so I simply look into his sad brown eyes and nod.
“We’ve known – we knew – each other since we were six. We grew up together and after we graduated, we both went into the military. He was like my brother. I wasn’t sure I would be able to make it down for the service, but I knew I had to.”
He stops speaking and looks down at his right hand – his fingers are flexing and unflexing. He absently traces a long scar along the inside of his forearm. “I got this scar from the bomb blast. I couldn’t move this arm or walk for months. My rehab took eight months.”
We talk for the remainder of the flight. About his childhood. About his life in Boston and how he ended up working and living in Atlanta. About his love of cars and how he rebuilt the engine of several classics.
“Did you or your friend ever get married and have kids?” I ask, now genuinely interested in the life of this young soldier.
“No,” he says a little reluctantly. “We were so dedicated to our work there just wasn’t a way to do it.” He pauses a beat. “I did have a girlfriend and I asked her to marry me, but she didn’t want to wait. I knew I was going back to Afghanistan and it wouldn’t be fair to ask her to wait for me.” He looks down at his hand and flexes his fingers again.
He tells me about the “brotherhood” of the men he served with. He flexes his hand as he relates the story of a young boy who worked at a vendor booth on base. The boy was feeding information to a cell group just off base, and a suicide bomber from the cell took out five of his “brothers” and injured several more.
“You can’t trust anyone over there. Only your brother. Only your brother.” He rubs his knee and flexes his fingers.
Suddenly he looks up at me, “I’m sorry I’m talking your ear off. When I was in rehab, my doctor told me talking about things would help. The post-traumatic stress is…” he shrugs rather than finishing the statement.
“If you hadn’t been injured, would you have gone back?” I ask.
He doesn’t hesitate. “Yeah,” he says nodding and looking directly in my eyes. “Yeah.”
“I’ve been in the military since I graduated at 17. I wanted to serve and protect my country instead of sitting at home doing… what?” He shrugs again, then mumbles, “I ended up sitting at home anyway, huh?”
I don’t respond. I simply look at him and he looks at me. Other passengers around us, who’ve all been listening to our conversation, sneak glances at us.
We continue talking as the plane lands and passengers begin deplaning. I notice his limp as we walk down the jetway. We walk and talk together like old friends as we make our way to baggage claim. After grabbing our bags, we head outside laughing and joking.
Eventually, my mother’s car crawls up, and I’m actually a little disappointed to end our conversation. He reaches out to shake my hand, but I hug him tightly instead.
I whisper in his good ear. “Thank you for serving our country. I’m sorry to hear about the death of your friend, but I hope you will be a comfort to his family. Enjoy reuniting with your brothers and try to have a little fun while you’re here.”
He puts his hand on his heart and looks at me. “God bless you. Thank you.”
I’m grateful for the sacrifice this man and his brothers have made. I’m grateful for my relatives and friends who have served like him and possibly even with him. I’m grateful for my mother, waiting patiently for me to put my bags in the trunk. Thank you…