In honor of Armed Forces Day (Saturday, May 15, 2010), I thought I’d share a fairly typical night at the lounge the USO provides to service members at the airport near me. I volunteer there as much as I can, often doing a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift when a flight is bringing men and women back from Iraq & Afghanistan, as well as family members returning from bases elsewhere overseas.
It’s 10 pm. I arrive to see a set of tired parents, wavering between nervous fidgeting and exhausted collapse. They drove 5 hours to see their son. They’ll only have a few hours, cut that much shorter by a delayed flight. It’s been eight months of worrying and fretting and missing and the plane can’t land soon enough to hug their returning son. A living, breathing surviving son.
An anxious wife, pacing the room. Opening and shutting magazines without seeing a word. She catches my eye over and over, looking for reassurance that the plane will land. That her husband will return. It’s been too long. Too many kisses missed. Too many nights reaching and only finding empty space. Is it too soon to go to the gate and wait? A two hour delay, such an inconvenience for travelers, for her an eternity.
The phone rings again. It’s midnight. The tired faces look up daring to hope this one is the call. My smile betrays the news before I even hang up. It’s landed I yell to already retreating backs, rushing to greet the ones they love.
Moments of quiet. Checking the sign in sheet for space. Stock the fridge. Make sure we are ready. It’s a full flight. Soon enough the line forms out the door. Tired, worn and dirty service members, tired and cranky moms with even crankier babies. Rushing to get them checked in, unloaded and nourished. Smiling as much as I can to convey how happy I am they made it home.
Later, much later, a lounge filled with sounds of fitful sleep. A baby cries out causing a few to stir. A young mom near tears as her baby won’t give in to sleep. What can she do when she has nothing left in her. A complete stranger. A fighter pilot fresh from battle says “Here, let me see him a second. I have a nephew his age.” In minutes the battle tested warrior holds a sleeping child and a mother cries in relief. She has two more flights before her journey is over. That what military space A flying gets you. A cheap trip to see your mate, a long journey home, alone.
It’s four and a half hours later. I put the fresh coffee out, defrost a few more donuts and start the painful process of wake up calls. A tap on the shoulder. A shake of the leg. Sometimes a hard shove and their bleary eyes beg for more time. Gentle reminders that home is calling and it’s time to answer and they are up. Drinking the coffee. Flirting with the girl with the donuts and talking of home.
Six a.m. my shift is done. My replacements have arrived. So many moments all unique and yet all the same. They have shaken my hand. Given me hugs and smiles and warm wishes for my sacrifice. Waiting for the bus, in quiet and solitude, I hope they know it is me that is truly blessed to be a small part of their coming home.