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I Sat Next To A Soldier.

April 26, 2010

Hello everyone, I’m taking this opportunity to tell a personal story, so no marketing, social media, or digital hoopla.

I sat next to a soldier.

I recently flew to Sacramento for a job interview for a position based on the west coast. The job was an internal move so I felt pretty good about my decision to interview and make the trip. I booked my tickets rather last minute and got the worst possible flights from Georgia to California. My flight going out had a 4 hour layover in Phoenix and the return flight was a red eye leaving Sacramento at 10:55pm on Friday and landing at 7:39 am Saturday morning in Atlanta. A brutal 2 days by any traveler’s standards.

My decision to apply for the position came after some pushing from my wife and friends and all I could do was think, what a big move this would be for me. Would I be able to leave my family behind? Could I really live in LA, San Fran or Sacramento? Did I feel up to the task of managing a new team in a new environment? These were huge decisions I had going through my head on the way out there. None of these questions were easily answered. I’d spoken to a few very close friends, my parents and my wife a lot prior to actually booking a ticket. Either way, I was on the plane now and the rest was up to fate.

The interview went well, and I had 10 hours on Friday prior to my flight leaving Sacramento so I decided to head to San Francisco for the day and check out the sites. Needless to say I had a blast and spent the day doing all of the touristy things you can do. I saw the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Warf, some crazy popular street that’s at a 40 degree incline, and ate burritos in the Mission District. A great way to wrap up my 25 hour trip to Northern California. On the drive back to Sacramento (about 2 hours from San Fran) I called a few buddies back in Atlanta and lined up our weekend plans to go racing. You see, I had already entered a few sprint races for this weekend prior to knowing about my last minute trip to California. Once I got back into Atlanta on Saturday from my red eye flight I had to hook up to the trailer, load the bikes and head to Alabama’s Talladega Gran Prix. It was going to be a heck of a long 4 days, and needless to say I wasn’t too happy about racing on zero sleep.

So I told you all of that to tell you about the soldier I sat next to. Upon arriving at my gate back in the Sacramento airport I decided to sit in an obscure corner; mind my business and catch up on emails. I’d been dragging behind due to my fun day in San Fran and I desperately needed to hammer out some work. While sitting in my exhausted haze, thinking about the races ahead and the interview I’d left behind I saw a soldier out of the corner of my eye in ACU’s (Army Combat Uniform) with a full pack sitting across from me. He was a younger guy, probably early 30’s and seemed very content just to sit there and watch passers by as they de-boarded their flights. He didn’t have a laptop, book, newspaper or even a magazine. He just sat there resting and looking around. I always like to watch the soldiers and wonder where they’re going and where they’ve been as they sit in the airports. I want to walk up and tell all of them how much I appreciate them and how amazing they are for their sacrifice for our country, but I never do. Nerves I guess.

Upon boarding my flight I noticed I’ve been dealt a middle seat for this wonderful 4 hour red eye and immediately I get frustrated and think to myself, “you have to be joking”. I have to fly home over night, in a middle seat and head to Alabama once I land with zero sleep. “Sweet life Dickerson” is all I can think to myself. I take my seat, stow my comp bag and almost get my lap belt buckled before I hear a very apologetic voice ask me, “excuse me sir, I’m sorry, but can I slide in there?” To my amassment I look up and see the soldier from the terminal holding his full pack looking at me with tired, apologetic eyes. “Absolutely”, I tell him as I spring to my feet. He apologizes again as he slides past the seats with his overstuffed hiking pack.

Once I slide back in I decide not to start the usual plane chatter as I’m exhausted, he’s got to be and we’re both about to take off on a long dark flight. I look out of the corner of my eye and notice him trying to fit the bag into the small spot below the seat in front of him. Knowing a square peg will never fit into a round hole I offer to see if theirs any room in the overheads for his bag. He tells me he’s fine and he’ll just leave it but I didn’t think that was acceptable since he literally had to jam his legs around the bag in order to keep from using the bag as a foot rest and having his knees up in his face. After jumping up and quickly looking around I can see that this flight is packed, and not one single spot in an overhead was available. I told him the not so great news to which he replied, “Seriously, don’t worry about it, I’m fine.” I could see that this man had no need for help, and hated the idea he could possibly be bothering anyone with his simple inconveniences.

The flight leaves, and I begin to nod off; catching myself doing the whole neck jerk thing where I wake up just before my uncontrollable head hits the seat back in front of me or the persons shoulder next to me. You know what I’m referring to as we’ve all done it. I look over and there the soldier is just sitting with his legs crammed around his pack and his eyes looking forward. “What’s running through his mind I think to myself?” He’s so quiet, so focused and looks so tired. After falling back asleep for an hour or so I begin to start thinking about my sweet middle seat and the terrible drive I have ahead of me when I land. I’m really starting to get aggravated that I didn’t plan this out better and that my head now hurts from smashing it on the tray table in front of me just a few minutes prior. I can feel the bruise forming all because the seat I’m in has nowhere for me to rest. Yes, I was having a seat 23D pity party for myself and it was awful.

About a half hour later the drink cart comes rolling down and I see that the soldier is now eating a premade sandwich he’s picked up in the airport and drinking a bottle of water he previously purchased. He just sat there eating and minding his business. When the stewardess came by and asked if he wanted anything he simply replied, “No thank you, I’m fine.” Here I am sucking down water and ripping into my pretzels like I haven’t eaten for weeks. After my gourmet pretzel and water dinner I am again briefly interrupted by our soldier who is politely asking if he can use the restroom. We all slide out and let him leave for the back of the plane. Upon his return he apologizes no less than 3 times (“thank you Sir”) for making us move and takes his seat back in his cramp quarters.

With 30 minutes left in the flight the lights come on, the flight attendants ask us to do the whole “seat backs to their full and upright…” you get the point. I look over to see the soldier packing his sandwich trash and his empty bottle of water back into his bag. I lean over and tell him I’d give it to the stewardess when she came through. He looked at me and simply replied, “Not necessary.” Baffled as to why anyone would want to keep their own trash I ask him if he’s headed home and if Atlanta was his last stop. Knowing damn well it wasn’t any of my business and I’d probably manage to aggravate him I asked anyways. Those of you who know me well know I just cannot help but talk when I’m bored.

He looked me right in the eyes for a brief second like I’d just asked him the most personal question in the world. I had to look away because it was a bit uncomfortable and I didn’t know what thoughts or memories I’d just brought up. He said, “I’m heading back out. I’ve been home for a few weeks for some rest, and I’m due back in the field tomorrow, so I leave for xxxx airport where I’ll catch a flight to xxxx (somewhere in Afghanistan).” He then asked, “You?” As to inquire if Atlanta was going to be my final destination.

Well, let me tell you how good I felt about myself after those 3 sentences were muttered by the hero sitting next to me. I looked down and simply replied, “Yes, Atlanta is home for me.” “Atlanta seems to be a great place” he replied. I simply responded “Yeah, I’ve lived here my whole life and I like it a good bit.” Sensing some odd nervousness in the air he simply left it as it was and leaned back into his seat.

Here’s a moment of internal humility every person must experience at some point in their lives. I’m 27, never been in the services, have a great job, beautiful wife, nice house, great friends and I’m worried and stressing about a possible promotion and a race weekend with my buddies. I’m sitting next to a guy who is on his way away from all of those things he holds dear to sit in a desert with an M16 and fight for Democracy just so I can wine and moan in my middle seat on my red eye back from a job interview and a great day in San Francisco with friends. WOW, I’m a jackass. I know he’s chosen that path and he must enjoy it but it doesn’t make it any less heroic or special to see soldiers doing what they do. Here I sit exhausted from a one day vacation, moaning about having to drive to a motorcycle race and this man addresses me as Sir, asks nothing from anyone, apologizes profusely for using the restroom, sits in discomfort for 4 hours so he doesn’t have to ask a flight attendant for a bag check, and the whole time he knows he’s about to have to go to a war zone AGAIN and do what he was trained to do. Reality check, party of 1.

We land, I get my bag from under the seat look him in the eye and tell him, “thank you for all that you do, and tell the rest of the soldiers out there that the people at home really appreciate what you’re doing and we want you all home safe soon.” He looks up and catches my eyes with a smile and simply replies, “thank you, we really appreciate it.”

I walked down the jet way with my head low and my priorities and complaints in check. I know that I have no room to complain about anything and I owe that soldier more than I could ever give him.

That’s the soldier I sat next to. He wants and expects nothing in return for his service but our thanks and gratitude. He addresses you as Sir. He will go out of his way as to not inconvenience anyone. He is in control. He is self sufficient. He is patient. He is proud to wear the flag.

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One Comment
  1. Wonderful post – thank you for sharing! I have had similar humbling experiences, and the most important thing is that you took the time to say ‘Thank You’ – so many may think it without saying it (I’ve done so on occasion myself). I try to be better at it, though.

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