I don't usually cry in airports, particularly when, as was recently the case, I am traveling on business. As usual, the St. Louis terminal was a hub of activity, a mix of focused business professionals and vacation travelers squeezing in one last piece of summer. Everyone in their own worlds, lost in conversation or in the CNN news blaring on the multitude of television monitors or in their handheld technology of choice. Which is what made the whole thing so remarkable.
As I made my way down the terminal corridor, briefcase in one hand, dragging my rolling closet with the other, a plane load of military women and men began entering the terminal from a gate jetway. As people in the terminal became aware of these soldiers, it was as if the sea began parting in front of them. All the civilian travelers, including me, stopped in their tracks, making way for these soldiers - all dressed in fatigues and each carrying a matching backpack - to walk unimpeded down the terminal toward the exit. As other travelers became aware of their presence, they began clapping. The soldiers kept moving, appearing a bit embarrassed at the attention they were receiving. But the pathway continued to open up before them and the clapping followed them all the way through the terminal, subsiding only when the last soldier had passed by.
I stood there with tear filled eyes, bearing witness to this impromptu display of respect, honor and patriotism, and I felt very, very proud not only of these soldiers but also of my countrymen. No one asked these soldiers about their political positions or whether they believed in the purpose of their work. They didn't ask where they had been or where they were going. It wasn't about that. These fellow travelers were simply, with their actions, saying we respect you and we thank you for serving our country.
This was indeed the most dramatic spontaneous display of respect and patriotism I've witnessed in an airport. On numerous occasions I've watched airport employees advance military personnel to the front of security lines. And I love that they are invited to board flights along with frequent travelers club members like me. Please do board before me. It is the least I can do. Once I saw a man in first class insist that a young soldier about to pass him in the aisle take his first class seat while this dark suited, red tied professional assumed a seat in coach. Personally, I try to make a point of thanking the service personnel I meet in airports and elsewhere for their service, although it always makes me emotional.
Some of you may recall the 2008 movie Taking Chance starring Kevin Bacon as Marine Lt. Col. Michael Strobl who escorts the body of deceased Marine Chance Phelps back to his parents in Wyoming. Based on a true story, the movie is an account of this Marine officer's experiences as he made his way through a series of airports and highways across the country. He was received in a variety of ways, sometimes with respect and appreciation and sometimes as just another nameless passenger subjected to the hassles of post 9/11 airport security. He didn't expect special attention or privileges; he was just there to ensure that this fallen soldier received the respect and honor due him as someone who gave his life in war. And most of the people Strobl encountered who knew or learned of his assignment seemed to understand and support his mission.
Acknowledging soldiers in airports is of course nothing new. The USO (United Service Organizations, www.uso.org) has established formal greeting stations in many US airports. Anyone arriving in Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport can't miss the USO stand at the top of the three story tall escalator in the T Concourse. It seems no matter the time of day, there is always a group there to greet service personnel with cheers and clapping as the escalators crest and soldiers come into view.
I've learned that there are 130 USO locations around the world, including in nine US states and the District of Columbia. And over 25,000 USO volunteers serve military personnel and their families more than 5.3 million times each year. I'm sure that our service personnel are grateful for the greetings and the benefits offered by the USO and similar groups, and I appreciate those who donate their time and resources to take care of them and their families.
I have many friends and family members who have served in our armed forces, and family members who currently serve in the Air Force, the Marines, and the Navy. They don't like for me to make a big deal about their service. Maybe it's because of that whole getting emotional thing. But they know I love them and appreciate them. I didn't know the soldiers in the St. Louis airport that day, but I was as proud of them as I am my own family members. And emotional or not, I will try to not miss opportunities to thank them for serving our country. Will you join me?