Home Front Heroes

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(HOST) As we prepare to observe Memorial Day, commentator David Moats is thinking about the many acts of heroism and sacrifice that quietly take place on the home front.

(MOATS) The soldier was in his fatigues, hoisting a bulky backpack. He had buzz-cut blond hair, and he was standing in the aisle, waiting to get off at the airport. Another passenger was asking him some questions.

“Are you with the 101st Airborne?”
“Yes, sir, I am.”
“Out of Fort Campbell?”
“Yes, sir.”
“How long you been gone?”
“Eight months, sir.”
“Welcome back.”
“Thank you, sir.”

I followed the soldier out the skyway, and as he neared the exit, I saw him reach into the pocket on his left thigh and remove a small white teddy bear. I thought, he’ll be disappointed if he’s expecting someone there on the concourse. They usually keep non- passengers outside security. But as soon as he stepped into the airport, a tiny blond girl, with her hair in pigtails, arms spread wide, came racing toward the soldier. She couldn’t have been more than two years old. Running was new to her. Running toward the man who was her father was probably something she had never done.

The soldier squatted down and swept her up in his arms. About ten feet away, the mother was also squatting down, watching this scene, hands covering her face, tears in her eyes. It was clear she had been imagining this scene for a long time. It was her job to keep the memory of her little girl’s father alive for eight long months.

I looked back to the father and daughter. He had turned so his face was looking away from his wife, still clinging to his little girl. He doesn’t want her to see the tears in his eyes, I thought. This guy has just come back from Iraq, and he’s trying to hold himself together. The last time he saw his little daughter, she probably had only just taken her first few steps. He’d probably been hearing about her progress as she grew, counting the days till he’d be home.

Who knew what he was doing during those long days in Iraq? This war is taking a toll on a lot of people.

I didn’t wait around to watch the reunion between the soldier and his wife. The human toll of war is huge, most obviously in the carnage it causes, but also in the ordinary disruptions, separations, loneliness, and hardship, of soldiers, spouses, children, mothers, fathers.

I’m not one for the preening superficial patriotism of those who throw around talk of heroes and sacrifice from the comfort of Washington or anywhere else. But there was something heroic in the small scene I saw. It was the small-scale heroism of real life – the disciplined, respectful composure of the soldier as he waited to get off the plane, the bond maintained over eight long months by wife and daughter. People just trying to get through something hard and then to get on with their lives, all of it made worthwhile by the headlong dash of that little girl into her father’s arms.

David Moats is the editorial page editor for the Rutland Herald and winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. He spoke from studios at Middlebury College.

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