Thursday, July 30, 2009

Too Quiet On The Eastern Front

It is a peaceful night here. It is quiet.
It is too quiet.

I admit to being spoiled. I said so in an earlier post. We’re a close family who talks together a fair amount, so if communication channels exist, we generally touch base with each other.

When the phone is quiet, and I don’t hear from Zach or from his girlfriend, at first I worry.

Then I tell myself that I’m being stupid, that he’s just busy or tired. Or working hard and needing to rest.

And then silence becomes deafening: I remember the communication shut-down policy on the base when someone dies.

Zach has not called us all day.

That means someone may be getting an awful message.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

As a nation, we value life. We hate loss of life.

I believe that human beings feel the same all over the world.

I believe that young men of free will are at risk of being hurt from voluntary risk-taking, no matter where they are in the world.

I know we have been lucky as a family, with the risks my boys have taken, that they are all whole and sound.

When a young person is hurt anywhere, anytime, people feel compassion and sadness.

When a young person is hurt from gunfire or a bomb as part of a military campaign, something else is added to that feeling.

I am moving very carefully and slowly here. I want to choose my words with great care and great honesty.

What is it that makes military death even harder for us?
What is it?

The military efforts in Afghanistan are escalating now in Helmand province because elections are coming up, and the Taliban is promising violence to anyone who supports free choice of leadership: http://www.voanews.com/english/2009-07-30-voa16.cfm

Many Afghan people want to vote.
Some Taliban, Afghan and otherwise, oppose it.
And there we are.

I wish the phone would ring. It would mean that, even though political and religious disagreements continue in countries far to the east of us…at least everyone is going home safe, to argue for another day.

Thank you for checking in.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

It’s 1:30 a.m. Do You Know Where Your Kids Are?

I’m writing that half-seriously and half-facetiously. I don’t remember what well-intentioned commercial owned that line, which was supposed to encourage improved parenting, but it sticks in our society, an imaginary finger wagging at us in admonishment.

I’ts about 6 in the evening here, which makes it 1:30 a.m. Kabul time. Zach is in the helicopter. He likes night flights.

Why? Well, among other things, it’s much cooler. The weather forecast is mid- to upper 90’s every day, but drops to the mid 60’s every night. That’s 30 degrees of heat that drifts off with the night air. Subtract warmth due to the wind-speed at which they fly, and add the heat of the helicopter, and you have a nice temperate flight.

Part of this story is about big thoughts, and part of it is about small details. The tiniest, most insignificant facts of daily life will give us a greater sense of what their deployment is like, so expect to read many little daily-life descriptions here.

One of them is about rack space. Older soldiers and environmentalists, buckle up: their tents are air conditioned.

The soldier whose bunk is below Zach’s is due to head back to his permanent duty station as his deployment ends. He is going to give Zach his bunk (rack) which is lower to the ground. So it’s cooler. Easier to get into and out of. Quieter, as it’s not right under the blower. All in all, that 3-foot change in real estate makes for a far more comfortable rack than what he has now. So he’s looking forward to that. And in typical guy style, the incoming fellow who gets the top bunk next…well, too bad for him!

Another little detail is what it’s like to mail a letter. He wanted to send a little present to his girlfriend that he bought in Bagram, and went out looking for the post office. In a camp which is rapidly growing in size, Zach apparently looked for over an hour and still couldn’t find the post office.

Was he walking? Are there buses that go about the extensive camp? We don’t know. There are so many, many things, little things, that we don’t know about their lives. I know the camp is experiencing booming growth, as the troop surges happen. The infrastructure must grow very quickly with it. I don’t know how big the camp is, or how people get around. And the phone calls are too short, too valued, to waste time asking detailed questions.

I do know that to get from “work” to their sleeping tents, they have to take a bus. I don’t know how often the buses run; I know they have to wait for them.

They have access to email, but for many it’s a long hot walk to the crowded computer center. I know that emails we send to the address Zach can get often bounce back; we’re not sure why.

And I know that to make a phone call, he must sign up for a time slot. The time slots are for ½ hour, but it seems as if he doesn’t have a whole half-hour to talk. I don’t know if all the guys there have access to the same phones, or if Zach’s office responsibilities give him easier access.

So many little, mundane-but-important wonderings. We share the same ones as other parents.

One father said he thought he hear bullet fire in the background as he was talking to his son. I would say to him that he may have heard the constant sound of chopper rotors. I may be wrong, but what an awful thing for a father to wonder about and worry over.

The proximity to phone and email does kind of give us an illusion of security. But these much-appreciated communications seem to affirm that once the adjustment to life on deployment happens, once they get to work, they relax a bit and their natural personalities show up again.

For my son, it's a strong focus on work and responsibility mixed with an easy sense of humor. It was delightful to get an email from Zach today, and to read his words. He sounds relaxed and at ease:

“I’m sitting at work with nothing to do…we are launching late tonight and won’t be back till sometime in the morning. I think I’m going to take a nap in a bit. It’s my first night flight in a while, and the first time I’ve landed in a dusty desert since Arizona in May…should be interesting.

I talked to [my girlfriend] again today. She’s doing well. It’s always so good to hear her voice even if it’s only for a few minutes a day. I’m looking forward to getting my packages from you guys and her. I have some stuff to take care of and I want to get a bit of sleep if possible before tonight’s flight.


Thank you so much for checking in.

Monday, July 27, 2009

We Are A Little Spoiled

War is different, and war is the same. Back in the day, you hugged goodbye, and longed for letters that arrived days or sometimes weeks later

It's still really hard to send loved ones there.
But it's really nice that sometimes now, they get to phone home.

An FOB is a Forward Operations Base. Closer to the bullets. The closer you are, the fewer communications options, in terms of phones and mail delivery.

But the support teams who work out of the main camp have, astonishingly, access to phones and sometimes email. We feel so very, very lucky to talk as much as we have been able to do.

Zach talked with both his girlfriend and me over the weekend. She and I have an agreement to text each other when either of us gets a call. We tell each other the news from him. Even the littlest details are important to us. We share every word.

Well, maybe not every word. I mean, she's his girlfriend. But most words get shared.

The teams on Zach and Scott's helicopter fly back and forth to FOBs regularly. Their responsiblities are to take food, supplies, and precious mail and packages from home. They take soldiers to and from the FOB. They evacuate casualties, and carry home those whose lives are taken away. Sometimes they fly other people, such as journalists.

We know a little more about how hot it is there: the thermometer near the pilots' seats reads about 130 degrees.

It's, um, hotter in the back of the helicopter.

Nobody needs Paris Hilton to say..."That's hot."

Because that's really hot.

Now put on the fifty pounds of body armor, and the helmet, and get your finger on the trigger of the gun in the plane door, and fly for hours with your eyes peeled on the ground watching for any sign of flash of gunfire.

Hot, and exhausting.

We talked about how many people in Afghanistan are welcoming to the American and Allied efforts in their country. Many are also not at all. Just like our country, people have different opinions and beliefs.

Zach said it is so strange, so foreign a feeling, to fly low over settlements and see people moving around below them. Wondering if one of them will run into a building and run out with something to shoot at them. Wondering who of the people they see below are friendly, and who are not.

Many are friendly; but who do you trust? And how do you know to trust them? We who live in peaceful places do not understand the strain that that puts on human beings...on both sides.

Zach told me today that after he flew his last mission, he came back so very tired to his tent and said hi to Scott, who went out and came back five minutes later to find Zach sound, sound, sound asleep. He woke hours later in the same filthy clothes, astonished and wondering when he'd fallen asleep.

Despite the heat and the strain, they feel good about their work. They know that there are people at the FOB who are depending on them.

For us, it felt good to pack up some small things Zach asked for, and ship them to him. It just feels so very good to help people.

It doesn't solve the problems of the world...but it makes today better.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

It's Not Training Any More

Zach called today; good phone reception. He said that they started work immediately upon arrival. I guess with the long delays in travel, the outgoing group needs to get them up to speed quickly.

He woke long before dawn to start work. His crew just finished a double shift. The good news is, he said casually, that nobody shot at them while they were flying.

Yes.

Now: it’s the first time I am going to use the word ‘troops’, and I want to proceed carefully here.

I have always been ambivalent about the word ‘troops’. It’s a word of respect. But it’s a word of distance. Of de-humanization.

We hear about ‘troops’ going into battle or peacekeeping or support work. We stand taller in the presence of the word. It implies trained-fighting-men.

We do not hear about sons and husbands and people we love going into battle. But they are: husbands and sons and brothers and nephews and uncles and cousins and boyfriends and fianc├ęs.

So saying ‘troops’ is shorthand for they’re trained for this and yet, it sort of dehumanizes them. The word itself strips them of their emotional connections to us and to other human beings, and isolates them. They are a body unto themselves, connected for the time being to the rest of the troops. Removed from us and our sphere of influence.

Troops are moved around the country, and troops fight battles. Troops are deployed.

Soldiers are wounded or killed or captured, rescued, evacuated or praised or punished, and return home from deployment.

Somehow soldiers, even though a similar word, sounds more compassionate than troops.

As it is time for me to use these words for the first time in my own writing, I am squirming a little inside, wondering if I will use them, if they will become as hollow in my writing as they are to me when I hear them…or if I can find something more meaningful.

In the end, a thing has to have a name for us to begin to understand it. And yet, so often, the very word that illuminates something also limits our understanding of it, and our connection to it, as well.

So I will say to you that in the long day that Zach worked today, he helped to fly young fighting men and older fighting men back and forth to different places. I don’t know where or for what.

I am need to proceed even more carefully with the next words…because they are not descriptive of a group of healthy strong men. They are descriptive of one man, someone loved by people I do not know; a young man to whom I want to be very respectful, and people to whom I want to be extremely respectful as well.

All of the travel, fatigue, frustration, good spirits and frustration were nothing but a prelude.

How do you even say this? It is too real now.

On their first day, their crew flew the remains of a soldier who had been killed back to base. He had been hit by a bomb the day before. A small and precious box carrying his remains was carefully loaded onto their plane and flown to camp, to then start the journey back to those who loved, and still love, him.

I think this may be the story of that young man. He is exceptional. Please copy and paste this into your browser and read about him for a moment:

http://www.mod.uk/DefenceInternet/DefenceNews/MilitaryOperations/GuardsmanChristopherKingKilledInAfghanistan.htm

Zach’s voice was more serious than I have ever heard him. Devoid of any fun at all. No joking.

With respect, and in peace,
Thank you for checking in.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Where In The World Is Carmen San Diego?

The camp where Scott and Zach are stationed is…well…rural.

I looked it up on Wikipedia. Loosely translated, it says that they are in a very remote desert. As in Very Extremely Middle Of Nowhere.

If you are traveling, and you’ve been traveling by jet and then propeller plane and then bus and then donkey cart and then on foot, and you’ve reached the little town of No F&#%king Where,

...you’ve still got a hundred miles to go.

The mailing address used to be Friggin’SeriouslyRidiculouslyRemote, Afghanistan…but it was too long to get on the postcards, so they changed it to Fricking Remote, Afghanistan.

I’m thinking no plasma televisions there.

Thanks for checking in.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Getting There: Getting Close!

Zach called from Bagram Airfield, which is "a militarized airport and housing complex that is located next to the ancient city of Bagram, southeast of Charikar in Parwan province of Afghanistan" (per Wiki).

He was astonished at both the freedoms the troops there have, as well as the options. "You can buy microwaves and plasma tvs... there's American fast food...!" He was also surprised by the dress code. The Marine Corps regulations are apparently much more stringent than Army ones in-country. As much as Zach chafes sometimes under the restrictions of dress, I guess he supports the underlying concept. I could tell he was not impressed by the more relaxed code at this base. But there must be a good reason, to learn over time.

Here's some about the country in which they spent the last few days: Kyrgyzstan.

Bordered by Afghanistan and China, there's so much to learn about the culture and the country: bride kidnapping, as a graceful way to escape arranged marriages. Tortuous travel year-round, impossible in winter. And much unlike our country, only 6% of the people are over age 65: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kyrgyzstan

...and you have got to LOVE the headdress that's part of their traditional garb. It's a for-real Princess Hat that I dreamed of as a child from pictures of medieval tapestrys and art. I most definitely need one of these:
http://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://www.state.gov/cms_images/kyrgyzstan_girl_2006_05_18.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/5755.htm&h=381&w=300&sz=17&tbnid=PnyylAACxZ5IdM:&tbnh=123&tbnw=97&prev=/images%3Fq%3Dkyrgyzstan&hl=en&usg=__3O3vPObUkmNuhKgZLzmNL-sQ7v0=&ei=-R1nSsSRAs67lAfR17XdDA&sa=X&oi=image_result&resnum=7&ct=image

That was most of last week. Today is Bagram at www.bagram.afcent.af.mil/, where you can get a flavor of what's to come.

Thanks for visiting.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

And STILL Getting There....

To get on an overnight jet from California to Australia or Japan... and be there in the morning...ahhh, it's the stuff of dreams of Zach's unit right now.

They are now in DAY EIGHT of transition and travel. Hanging out in one airport or another, living out of duffel bags, waiting, waiting, waiting. Putting on gear, go-time imminent, and getting The Talk, only to be delayed two more days.

Word is that today is the day they finally start the last leg, a two- or three-day trek through different places with their camp the final destination.

Phones are available, but impossible: there are too-few phones for too many people, and your calling card has to work. Zach planned to call his girlfriend at 10:30 last night but couldn't get a phone line for three hours, until 1:30 a.m. Sometimes you can hear what he's saying, and sometimes you can't. Scott called his parents this morning, and the phone line just cut out after about forty seconds.

And yet still, they respond with tremendous patience.

I have decided that my goal this year is to Just Not Complain Any More.

My life is SO friggin' much easier than what they are going through just to get to their base camp, and they are so great about it...using humor to deal with frustration, resting when they can... just managing it.

So for the next several months:

I'm not whining.
I'm not complaining.
I'm not feeling sorry for myself.
I'm going to be cheerful at best, and neutral at worst, and
I'm just going to do what I have to do.

I might talk about it honestly, and say I'm tired, or use humor and joke about it. But beyond that, I'm going to work on developing some more core strength.

We can all use a specific period of time to work on ourselves, or to accomplish a goal.

So...Game On.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Getting There...And Getting There...And Getting There...

Getting There: Day Three (Friday)

They were supposed to have a two-hour layover in Germany before heading out again. They must have arrived about 11:30 in the morning. Was it this layover that they would need to put on their body armor and wear it from them on out? I can’t remember.

Getting There: Day Four (Saturday)


Driving to work, I find myself wondering where is he? I'm going to have to get used to that feeling, I guess!

I found out later that almost at that moment, he tried to call us – and no one picked up. It's odd, Zach and I have that connection.

Later on Saturday afternoon, he called again. Tired. Tired, tired, tired to the bone. Different country, same story. A long layover. He wants to get out of his clothes and get a shower.

There was no ground crew to unload the plane, so after all that traveling, they heaved all of the massive bags out of the airplane themselves. They were exhausted…but maybe it helped to stretch cramped muscles that had been sitting and standing too long.

Then a tractor trailer needed to be unloaded – of what? he didn’t say – and he helped with that too. It sounded as if he worked on it out of desperation to do something besides flying, or waiting to fly. They want to get to camp, and get to work.

Getting There: Day Five (Sunday)

An early morning call told us that they were leaving for camp, the final leg of their journey, soon. We don’t know what means of communication they will have. I feel lucky to have gotten the calls we did already!

The phone connection had a significant delay, and lots of the words fuzzed out. Zach sounds more tired than I have ever heard him. By the time I am writing this, they should be there…?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Getting There: Day Two (Thursday)

Everyone, that is, except Kathy Wilt.

While Scott spent the night with his brother and sister, Kathy stayed up long after bedtime, making cookies and black-bottom cupcakes. I can picture her, the light from the kitchen spilling out into the darkness, while she placed dozens of tiny cupcake papers into baking tins, and slid fresh cookies into a container to take to the airport.

Chocolate chip cookies…do other cultures love them as we do, or are they iconic to America only?

Kathy, I am sure, understands Pam’s gift of salmon. Making cookies late into the night, putting them into containers to take to the airport to share with everyone. It’s a gift of love that none of my words will capture. Long after the cookies are gone, the memory of her tucking them into Scott's backpack will be pulled out like a photograph, to be savored again.

The next morning, Zach’s girlfriend left at 5 am, and we all said goodbye, and then he went back to sleep. I spent the morning tiptoeing upstairs and peeking at him sleeping. What a gift, to see him in bed at home. The simplest things are the most treasured.

I worked with a database client over the internet, discussing integrating their communications database with a data warehouse. It was an improbably complicated conversation, and surreal. While I was talking, my middle son texted me come upstairs. I couldn’t go. Later he told me that I missed a great photo: three brothers and the dogs all sprawled out together, talking.

Then boys went out for breakfast, and grandparents arrived, and my sister’s family came. The flight was delayed again, and after everyone left, Zachary went into his room and closed the door and did not come out for a long time.

What is it like at twenty-five to write a “what if” letter?

Then there was a trip for a cheese steak to put in his backpack for dinner, and a trip to the local grocery for sandwiches for lunch, and back to the hotel to meet the rest of the advance team.

This time, the ticketing counter clipped right along. We all gathered in a sports bar. Five hours to wait until the flight was due to leave at 11 p.m.

Which boarded at 2 a.m.
And left at 4:30 a.m.

We said our goodbyes and hugged at about 8 p.m. Without worries, without strain. We know that the best way to support someone is to let them do their work, without them having to worry about us.

I watched Zach go through security. I could tell he was cracking jokes with the guards. the way he always does. He just likes people, and talks easily with everyone. When he took off his shirt to go through the scanner, I found throat catching.

And then the feeling was under control and gone, and he was out of sight.

Fly safe. Be safe, baby of mine.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Getting There: A Hiatus

We drove almost to home, and stopped for provisions. Zach and Mark went into the store, leaving me and two very attractive young women in the back seat of the Prius.

Now would be the time to say that someone special to Zach drove all the way up from the deep South for two days, just on the chance of seeing him briefly at the airport.

She and her friends rolled into our home late Tuesday afternoon. We went on a quick tour of Maryland and spent the night on the Eastern Shore, so that I could participate in a television feature about my favorite little town. Interview over, we got back in the car and headed to the airport, picking up party food on the way back.

Lots of the other guys on the plane had said goodbye to wives and girlfriends and family back in Hawaii. Thanks to the delay of the flight to Germany, we were going to get a visit with Zach before we said our fare wells.

Sitting outside the store near home, a woman getting into her car saw the three of us girls squeezed into the back seat of the car. She laughed. You all look so cute in there I would take a picture if I had a camera.

Pam had just come from grocery shopping at Wegmans. I handed her my camera. The picture was going to be part of this story, and I wanted it.

While she learned how to use an iPhone camera, she recognized me, and we reminded each other how we connected. I introduced her to Zach's girlfriend and her best friend, and I told her what we were doing, and we laughed together.

Until Zach came out of the store with his dad. Pam has a good and loving heart. Something about the story and the impromtu visit touched her. You could see it in her eyes.

Oh, just go on and hug him, I said. It's all right. And she said no, and then darn it, she did it. A big ol' hug, laughing and crying and understanding.

Mark and Zach got into our car, and she got into her car, and then she said impulsively Would you like some salmon? I just got it... and with that, she pulled it from her car and pushed it into Zach's hands. It's highway robbery what they charge for it, but it's delicious. Take it. Just take it.

It was one of the sweetest, most human moments I've ever seen. She just wanted some way to express human feelings that are difficult to sum up. Perfect, expensive salmon was the most precious thing she had to offer at that moment; and she gave it with her whole heart.

Pam...thank you.

After that, it was home, and hugging the dogs, who were delirious with excitement, and talking with brothers, and finding bedding for everyone, and more talking and a whole lot of hugging his girlfriend, who had to leave before dawn the next day.

Zach took out his body armor, and I tried it on. The idea of working in it for a twelve-hour shift is mind-boggling. We all see pictures of troops wearing it, with their helmets, but you cannot imagine how it feels. Just strap a concrete block on your chest and one on your back and put a brick on your head, and you'll get the idea. Good grief. How do they do it? They must come back from deployments with no body fat at all. It's like working with weights for an entire day. It must be exhausting.

This isn't to glamorize the military or make them heroic or support any political agenda. It's just to help myself understand what parts of their work is like for them, and maybe to help other people who want to know understand.

The job they do: yep, they picked it. But they are human just like you and me. Lots of people go into the military for reasons that have nothing to do with wanting to be shot at. Some need opportunites lacking elsewhere in their life. Some need challenge. Some like structure, but are not necessarily warlike. Lots and lots of people in the miltary do clerical work, and cooking, and maintenance, and planning, and bridge building. Zach just happened to want to learn things about flying.

I want, as a human being, to appreciate their work. Appreciate in the true sense, which implies "I understand, from a little bit of experience" as well as "I am grateful".

I appreciated wearing body armor for all of five minutes. It weighed so much that after that brief experience I was sweating profusely in the air conditioning and started a neckache that lasted the whole next day.

Then he repacked it, ready to put on when they stopped in Germany. We all said goodnight, and went to sleep.

Happy.

Getting There: Part One

It's been preparation for HMH 463 for weeks: close down apartments or barracks quarters, and put couches and televisions and microwaves and stereos and books and blankets and pillows...all the stuff of everyday life...into storage.

Take the fish from your fishtank to the petstore, so they can sell them to someone else, so you won't have to find someone to take care of the tank for you for eight months. Call your cell phone carrier to stop your service in two days: there are no cell towers in Afghanistan.

Clean out your car, and get it in storage as well. Get rides for the next several days, since you have to put your car into storage days before you leave.

Shots. Malarial pills. Reactions to medications you might need tested. Instructions that you can share with your family...and instructions you can't.

Then you start to pack, and you load (in Zach's case) 185 pounds of gear into four bags, plus your weapon padlocked in its case.

Call friends, chat, wait out the days that take forever and go fast. And then, on Tuesday at 4:00, report to the hangar to check in and get on the bus to the airport.

Check in at the United ticket counter with forty other guys and one female corpsman, all of whom are lugging massive quantities of luggage.

PAY UNITED AIRLINES $125 EACH FOR HEAVY BAGGAGE CHARGES. It's mostly the body armor that you need to wear, since you can be shot at nearly any time, and the heavy helmet that will protect your head. Wrap your emotions around the fact that as a member of the US Armed Forces, you have to pay to ship your own gear to war.

Then it's on the plane, and over the Pacific to Denver, and breakfast in the airport and a quick call to your family during the layover.

In our case, it was such welcome news: our son's unit would be flying through BWI, less than an hour from home, and was expected to have a several-hour layover.

It started as a simple request: can you bring me a barbeque sandwich from Andy Nelson's? A last favorite taste of home before eight months of who knows what food, eaten catch-as-catch-can. Then Scott wanted Chick-Fil-A, and Zach thought that was a good idea too.

So he added on: And an order of Chick-Fil-A?

Then maybe you'd better bring a big order. So we can share.

Then Word's gotten out. Everybody loves Chick-Fil-A. Bring a lot.

So we planned to bring a lot, and we talked to Kevin and Kathy Wilt, who were planning to bring a lot...and we ended up bringing a party.

Kevin Wilt talked to the great folks at Chick-Fil-A in Cockeysville, MD and they offered a generous discount. Together we got three big trays of nuggets and a fruit tray.

Kevin got two coolers full of bottles of water at Sam's Club.

Mark and I picked up some jumbo Andy Nelson's famous pulled pork sandwiches.

My friend Wernie donated melt-in-your-mouth cinnamon rolls from his restaurant, the Bohemia Cafe in Chesapeake City, MD.

Grandmom Leora Ritter picked up crab cakes to share, Baltimore's finest treat, and made a pound cake.

Without knowing if we would be able to visit - it varies according to the group and is totally at the discretion of the unit leader - or when or how they would be able to eat, we went to the airport,

and saw the most beautiful sight you can see in the world: your kid.

They were strong, healthy, laughing, and unloading massive chunks of luggage from the United carousel as if they weighed nothing. I mean, pieces of luggage that were bigger than bales of straw, and that weighed as much as a small Toyota.

They never even made it to the USO lounge where they could sit down and rest after the long flight from Hawaii. After a straight sixteen hours of traveling already, they went right upstairs to line up to check in to the next flight to Germany

We were lucky; the terminal was empty, and we commandeered a counter, and the good folks at BWI let us serve the boys a feast. They kept thanking us, but it was we who wanted to thank them, for letting us share even a little part of their lives and their trip.

We got to meet folks whose names we had heard, and got to hear their voices. There they were, real and laughing, joking with each other, with blond hair or dark or shaved bald.

They were remarkable. Patiently waiting, never arguing, they never displayed an iota of negative emotion during the many long hours we saw them standing on their feet, not moving, nowhere to go, waiting in line to check in for the flight to Germany, only to learn that it had been cancelled for the night.

Among other things, I'll say this for the Marine Corps: they know how to show profound restraint and patience, when the need is there. My feet and back were aching, and I had to find somewhere to sit down - and I had slept in a comfortable bed the night before. They stood without complaining, looking for all the world as if they had just strolled over to the airport.

And then, after six hours of waiting in line, they loaded those heavy bags onto a bus and headed over to the Holiday Inn Express - and we heard the best, most unexpected words:

You guys who live so close to here, you might as well head home with your families for the night.

It turns out you can fit five people and 185 pounds of luggage into a Prius. And we drove towards the Maryland sunset. Happy. Happy, happy, happy.