by Steven Miller
It was 1971 and I was on my way home on leave from my duty station at Fort Sill, flying Military Reserve, which meant I got a discount on the airfare if I was in uniform. I had flown from Oklahoma City to St. Louis, and was on my way to the connecting flight on TWA. Other people largely ignored me as they all hurried on and off their planes. In other times, during other wars, servicemen on travel status were met with smiles and courtesy wherever they went. People bought them drinks or helped them with their bags, or if nothing else, offered encouraging comments of gratitude for the job they were doing. A grateful nation, proud of their ‘boys,’ never hesitated to adopt each of them as if they were a favorite son or nephew. The sight of a soldier arriving safely home to his family could not help be elicit teary-eyed smiles from bystanders.
The Vietnam War had changed all that. As I walked along the corridors to the connecting gate, I suddenly felt conspicuous and self-conscious in my uniform. I noticed how the servicemen kept to themselves. They seemed to seek each others’ proximity, if not their company, like immigrants in an unfamiliar land. They clustered in the bars, their backs turned to the hallways, much as the backs of their countrymen had been turned to them. There was little pride in their faces, only the look of those who were trying to pass through this particular portal as unnoticed as possible.
I arrived at the connecting gate and stood waiting for the flight to board. As I waited, I noticed a young soldier, no more than twenty or twenty-one, ruggedly handsome in a boyish way, dressed smartly in his Class A uniform leaning on a pair of crutches as he waited for the flight to begin loading. Above the left breast pocket of his uniform he wore the distinctive musket and wreath of the Combat Infantryman Badge, awarded only to those who had met the enemy under fire. I self-consciously ran my fingers over the pocket of my uniform, suddenly aware that mine was void of any decorations, a glaring sign that I had not yet seen the enemy face to face.
Below the Combat Infantryman Badge was a row of ribbons which represented the medals the young man had been awarded. I recognized the Bronze Star and the Vietnam Service Medal. I saw the Purple Heart and found myself visually scanning the young man from head to foot. It was then that I realized that this handsome boy would spend the rest of his life with a stump where his left foot once was. I momentarily experienced the simultaneous feeling of pity for the boy and the guilt for the secret thankfulness that it was the other guy, not me, who was coming home a cripple.
I saw the soldier reach into his breast pocket and pull out a pack of cigarettes, shake one out, and start searching his pockets for a match. After a minute, it was obvious he needed a light. He looked around the crowd for another smoker from whom he could get a match. When no one stepped forward to offer him a light, I walked over to the soldier and held up my lighter. The young man leaned forward on his crutches and puffed the cigarette to life, nodded a polite “thank you” to me and turned his attention to the gate. I returned to my place by the gate, and stood there waiting to board.
When the plane landed in Indianapolis, my mother and father were waiting at the gate with big smiles on their faces. My mother gave me a hug and after a moment, we began walking up the concourse toward the baggage claim. Before we rounded the corner, I stopped to glance back, and saw the young soldier make his way from the gate. He was greeted by his mother. She was crying.