By Michael Lund
On the way to the joyous occasion of our son’s wedding recently, my wife, an animal lover, got to chatting at the airport with a younger woman traveling with her small dog. “She’s been with me all over the world,” said the owner proudly. “She’s a great companion.” The dog rode in a soft cage, but was well-enough behaved to sit on her owner’s lap, have a biscuit, and drink water while they waited.
It turned out the traveler’s first flight on her way from a Mid-Atlantic state to Alaska had been canceled that morning after she’d arrived at the airport and been checked in for her flight. To reschedule, she explained, she had been made to go back though security with all her baggage. (This also gave her the chance to walk her dog in an approved area.) Re-booked on an afternoon plane and with the new boarding pass in hand, she endured the process of having herself and her effects screened a second time before being allowed to settle in and wait for the same plane on which we had seats.
Encouraged by my wife’s interest, she eventually revealed that she was the wife of an Army sergeant–seven years in the service, three tours in Afghanistan. He had been wounded (lost part of a hand), experienced several concussions, was perhaps developing a need for counseling (but was reluctant to seek it).
After his most recent time overseas, she, the spouse and the mother, began to feel unwell. She was tentatively diagnosed with MS, the symptoms of which–tiredness, tingling in the limbs, vision problems–are often augmented by stress. Over the last few weeks, she’d been to see a specialist near where her parents lived (who could help with the children traveling with her while she underwent tests at the hospital). Her physical condition confirmed and a treatment plan established, she was returning to care for her family. Some of their children were staying with the grandparents for a time.
Overhearing this conversation, I offered to get my wife a soft drink and asked the mother if she would like something also. She thanked me and began unpacking her purse to find the money. I waved her off, saying she and her family had done enough for me and mine.
When our flight was called, she got up, gathered her dog and her travel bag, and came over to exchange a hug with my wife–an hour and a half ago a complete stranger. Holding back some tears, we both wished her well. Her long journey would stretch into the next day at least; and when she arrived home the real hard work would begin.
That this military spouse was so receptive to the concern my wife showed for her underscored to me how lost the military can feel in a civilian environment. She had not volunteered her story, but my wife, a good listener, encouraged her to speak. To those not aware of her burdens, she was just one more traveler, deserving no exemptions from such policies as those that govern the care of pets and those traveling with pets.
If I’d had my wits about me (they were scattered by the matter-of-fact way she spoke about all she was going through), I would have made sure she was booked first-class for the rest of her journey. I will feel this regret for a long time. And I should.
A native of Rolla, Missouri, Michael Lund served in Vietnam as an US Army correspondent (1970-71). Professor Emeritus of English at Longwood University in Virginia, he is the author of a number of novels inspired by Route 66. He lives in Virginia and writes about veterans issues.