“So what are you, in the Marines or something?” This was his cold open. His head rested against the seat. He looked straight, eyes hidden behind large brown sunglasses.
“No, I’m in the Army,” I said.
“Are you like, coming back from Iraq?”
“Yes, pretty much.”
“Oh, I do not agree with that at all. I’m glad you’re back home.”
“Thanks,” I replied.
“Do you want a Bloody Mary or anything? I need a Bloody Mary.”
He was probably in his late twenties. Well dressed, with a day’s stubble on his face. He seemed exhausted. He told me he was hungover from a night of partying and heading back home to New York.
“So did you have to shoot anyone?” he asked with the casual air of a mother asking her child if he had homework today.
“Yes, I fired my rifle.”
“Oh my god,” he said, finally looking towards me, flipping up his sunglasses, “did you kill anyone?”
“I don’t know.”
“That’s crazy. I could never do that.”
Since this was the first time I was going home on leave after war, I was wearing my dress uniform. It was issued to me before I even began basic training. I weighed 140 pounds then. This was three years later and I had put on 20 pounds. The uniform was tight, but looked good. It felt very strange to be traveling like this, but I wanted my parents to experience it. I kind of wanted to experience it too.
The flight attendant delivered the Bloody Mary. Her vest was full of pins. Most were variations of American flags and yellow ribbons. Some were of military units I was familiar with. She placed a coke on my tray.
“My son is in the 101st Airborne Division. Thank you very much for you service,” she said.
“Thank you,” I replied.
My new friend leaned forward and eagerly stirred his drink with a piece of green celery and took a large sip.
“So do you have to go back?”
“Not anytime soon,” I said.
“Well that’s good.”
He became more talkative. He talked about his party last night and the partying he is going to do in New York when he gets there. He says he’s tired of it all. I don’t say much back to him.
My uniform is too tight.
I spend most of the flight looking out the window. It’s a short flight. North Carolina to New York.
The pilot announces we are making our approach. The flight attendant gets on the microphone and tells us to raise our seats and place our trays in their upright position to prepare for landing.
At the point in which she would normally say to sit back and relax, we’ll be on the ground shortly, she instead announces that we are privileged to have a real American soldier on board, just back from Iraq. This gets a round of applause.
As the applause dies out, she begins to sing.
From the lakes of Minnesota
To the hills of Tennessee
“Holy shit, this is crazy!” my now drunk friend says, excitedly.
Across the plains of Texas
From sea to shining sea
I can see the flight attendant at the front of the plane, singing into the microphone. Heads are turning in their seats with wide smiles to see me. My uniform suddenly feels huge.
From Detroit down to Houston
And New York to L.A.
Where’s pride in every American heart
And it’s time we stand and say
Everyone is singing now. My friend is looking at me with a wide grin.
That I’m proud to be an American
Where at least I know I’m free
And I won’t forget the men who died
Who gave that right to me
And I’d gladly stand up next to you
And defend Her still today
‘Cause there ain’t no doubt
I love this land
God Bless the U.S.A.
The passengers erupt into applause and the plane lands a moment later.
I’m in the back of the plane, sweating. I take my time and will be one of the last to get off.
My friend gets his luggage and wishes me luck. He disappears into the rush of people getting off the plane.
I make my way to the front of the plane and thank the flight attendant as I get off. She shakes my hand but doesn’t say anything special. I get the impression that this experience wasn’t unique. She’s done this before.
My parents are in the terminal. They look impressed with my uniform.