Last week the country recognized/celebrated/honored Veterans in a variety of ways. I have to admit that Veterans Day is not usually a big deal in our household – most of the people we know are veterans, and we/they appreciate each other every day. However – a strange series of events made this year a little bit different, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be the same.
Thursday – I was coming back from a business trip and stopped at a restaurant in the Atlanta airport for dinner. When I was paying the bill the waitress asked to see an ID with my credit card. I pulled out my military ID and handed it to her, and when she stared at it for longer than normal I reached up to flip it over for her (thinking she might have been looking for my birthdate or some other info that is on the back). Instead, she reached out and grabbed my hand with tears in her eyes. “Thank you Major” she said. “Thank you so much for everything you do for this country.” I didn’t feel like I could take praise that wasn’t for me. I wanted to explain to her that I was a wife, not a soldier. I even got as far as saying “I’m married to a Major…” but she was not to be stopped. She went on, holding my hand, telling me she couldn’t imagine how much my family had sacrificed and how grateful she was for the chance to thank me. In that moment – even though she was thanking me “by mistake”, I took in all the love that she and most of America have for my husband, our friends, our family. Teary eyed myself, I whispered “thank you”. We hugged (as well as two women can over a small table in a crowded airport restaurant) and I headed home, filled with gratitude.
Friday – Don was lucky enough to be in the Veterans Day parade in NYC. He was also lucky enough to be in the same room with my boyfriend (Tom Selleck) and didn’t get a photo, but that is a story for another time. Anyhoo – at one point he needed cash and walked away from the crowd and on to another street to find an ATM. When he told me what happened next he described it as “emotional” (and those of you who know him will be surprised he even knows what that word means) – but as he was walking down what turned out to be Wall Street he was stopped by no fewer than ten people. Wall Street guys in their expensive suits, people coming from the Occupy Wall Street protests, doormen, teenagers – Americans from every walk of life, every political belief, every generation stopped this lone soldier to thank him for his service. I leave the house and see 20 soldiers before I get to the grocery store. These people may have gone their whole lives without meeting someone in uniform, and when they saw their chance they were proud and grateful to take it. The moment meant a lot to Don, and to me as well.
Then came Saturday.
Don and I attended the wedding of a fantastic, lovely, precious, wonderful couple. The groom (Sean) was stationed with Don in Alaska, so the wedding was also a reunion of some of our other Alaska dudes. The ceremony was amazing, filled with love and gratitude (not the least of which being that Sean made it home from deployment in time). The reception was festive, welcoming, filled with laughter and dancing and a coming together of families. While we were sitting around the table I felt a small pang, because it was with this group of men that Don lost one of his PLs and our friend – 1LT Colby J. Umbrell. Just three weeks earlier we were at a wedding where there was no best man, because CPL Benjamin S. Kopp also made the ultimate sacrifice for his country. When you are part of the military family, sometimes festive occasions are also sprinkled with sadness, so I didn’t think my “pang” was out of the ordinary.
At one point in the night two guys at our table leaned forward and told us that one of Sean’s friends (for the sake of this story I’m going to call him Pita – as in Pain In The Ass) had made some incredibly derogatory, ignorant, inaccurate comments about soldiers. Not the war – the soldiers. To guys he KNEW were soldiers. They had walked away from the conversation but were pointing him out to Don and I as a “stay away from that douchebag” heads up – which was all fine and good until we got on the shuttle to go back to the hotel, and Pita was sitting two rows behind us. Our friend Chris was chatting up the girl sitting next to him, and out of nowhere Pita decided to “cock block” (for lack of a better term) Chris by embarrassing him in front of everyone else on the bus.
People who know me well know a side of my personality called “Angry Beth”. She RARELY comes out, but when she does it is because she feels like someone she cares about is being hurt in some way. It is NOT pretty. I am embarrassed about what transpired over the next ten minutes or so, but after what the guys had said about Pita and what I had just seen him to do Chris, Angry Beth appeared. I won’t go in to details, but it started on the bus, continued in the parking lot, and then he was dumb/drunk/something enough to follow me up the stairs trailed by Don and one of our other Alaska buddies, Brandon. Don was literally inches away from getting me in to our hotel room and Pita on his way when Pita intimated that people like Don and Brandon didn’t care about their friends getting killed and that he (Pita) was a better friend to Sean because he DID care.
For a moment I think I actually, literally, lost my mind. Don and Brandon had to physically step between me and Pita and pull me in to the room (like I said – not my proudest moment). Brandon stayed behind to get me under control while Don went back out in the hall to make Pita go away.
Then something happened that I never in a million years would have expected.
I started sobbing.
Most Americans don’t know that when a soldier is killed during a deployment, it is the women who deal with what happens stateside. With the exception of maybe one or two guys from the unit, soldiers do not get to come home for the funerals of their friends/men, so the wives represent their husbands however they can. If the families are local the wives make meals and help with arrangements. If the families live somewhere else the wives still try to help as much as they can, and Don and I agreed a long time ago that I would attend every funeral as long as I was physically able – no matter the cost or distance or heartbreak. I have had the most amazing and devastating honor of attending five funerals over the past few years. I have stood over five flag draped coffins and whispered my goodbyes. Held the hands of five grieving families who will never be truly whole again. Felt the tremor of five twenty-one gun salutes ringing in my ears as I thought my heart was going to break right out of my chest. Five times I have seen my worst nightmare played out in front of me, and then gone home to an empty house wondering if the next knock on the door would be for me because my husband was still in the place that was sending his men home in body bags. Five weddings we will never go to. Five voices we will never hear again.
Over the last ten years I think America has done a good job of teaching itself the whole “even if you don’t support the war, you support the troops” mentality. I am fine with people who don’t even think about the war and our troops at all. I have even been ok with knowing that there were a few crackpots out there and have prided myself on knowing what I would say/do if I ever came across one. On Saturday though, I was blindsided. Blindsided because someone who appeared so “normal” could be so ignorant and hateful. Someone who claims to support the troops but thinks so little of soldiers that he could look them in the eye and discredit their sacrifice, belittle their losses, and question their loyalty to one another. The realization that there were people like him out there was just more than my war weary heart could bear.
The next thing I knew I was standing in our hotel room, my body wracked with sobs, my face buried in my hands, repeating over and over to Brandon “I watched them put Colby’s body in the ground – does this guy have any idea what that feels like?” Then I started listing off the names of the funerals I had been to and telling their stories as Brandon put his arms around me and let me cry away years of sadness. “Doesn’t he know our hearts are broken?” To suddenly have all of this emotion surprised me, and I’m sure it surprised the bejeebies out of Brandon. Don didn’t know what to do with me either when he came back in the room, but they were both total troopers as I sniffled my way through my apologies and tried to pull myself together so we could go meet up with the rest of our friends.
About twenty minutes after we arrived Pita came up to me and asked if we could talk. He told me that he and Don had been out in the hallway when he heard my sobbing through the door. He’d heard every word I’d said and wanted me to know that he was completely overwhelmed by my grief, and embarrassed that he had been so wrong about “us”. His worst nightmare, he explained, was losing Sean, but it had never even occurred to him that military families like ours have been through it not once, but two, three, four and five times over. Wives bury their friends while laying awake nights worrying about their own husbands. Parents hold their breath every time the phone rings or there is a knock on the door. 99% of America has no idea what it feels like – and I pray they never have to. It is a heavy honor to bear, and a lesson I hope Pita takes with him as he moves back out in to a world void of Angry Beths.
So here’s to the waitress in the Atlanta airport and the people on the streets of Manhattan for honoring this country's veterans in ways both large and small. Here’s to Brandon and Sean and Chris and the other men we love like they are our own kids. Here’s to Don – a man of incredible talent and honor and dedication – to his men, his country, and his wife. And here’s to Pita – for bringing me to the point of no return where I found my grief and let go of years of anger and pain, even if it was in a horrendous, train wreck sort of way in the lobby of a Hampton Inn. Thank you for the gift of clarity – I hope I have given you just a little of the same.