I was late for a plane when I saw him. The freckled kid was in uniform. Operational camouflage combat fatigues. Reverse-flag patch on his right shoulder. High and tight haircut.
He was standing on the sidewalk outside the airport. His mother was beside him, straightening his collar. His little sister was there, too. So was his dad.
The young man was carrying a backpack the size of a Frigidare, the thing must have weighed a few metric tons. He was vaping from an e-cigarette nervously.
I could tell by everyone’s body language that this was farewell.
Mama stood three feet shorter than her boy. She stared upward into his young eyes and the expression on her face was mournful.
“You got everything, baby?” she said.
He might be on Uncle Sam’s payroll, but to her, he’s still “baby.”
“I packed sandwiches in your bag,” said Mama. “It’s a long trip, be sure to eat, need to keep your energy up.”
Dad jumped in. “How long of a flight is it?”
“Six hours for the first half,” said the soldier.
Little Sister spoke up. “I’ll miss you. I don’t know what I’m gonna do without you.”
He nodded solemnly, but offered nothing heartfelt in return. In fact, his side of the whole conversation was about as emotionally charged as a scoop of coleslaw.
Dad said, “Just keep your head down and your nose clean.”
Funny. American dads have been using this exact phrase since dads wore knee breeches and carried muskets to PTA meetings. Head down, nose clean. Here it is 2022, and dads are still saying it. Don’t tell me this isn’t a great country.
Dad clapped his son on the shoulder. “You’re gonna be fine.”
“We’re so proud’a you,” said Mama.
“I love you,” said Sister.
Once the soldier finished sucking on his vape pen, he gave Mama one final hug. Then he stooped to embrace Sister. The soldier then shook his father’s hand and the old man pulled him inward. Dad wrapped his arms around the boy. They squeezed. They released.
And the kid was gone.
Little Sister tucked her head into Mama’s chest and made some noise.
I checked in for my flight. The airport was pure chaos. Cable news was blaring. Men in Guccis were sprinting toward the food court, towing wheeled suitcases, thumbing away on smartphones.
Why is it that travelers in airports act so important? You’d think they were all congresspersons by the authoritative way they stride around.
When I got to my gate I happened upon the young soldier again. He was sitting with his head in his hands. I won’t say he was crying, but I won’t say he wasn’t.
What I will tell you is that the kid was wearing a face he had not worn earlier on the sidewalk. With his parents, he had been stoic, stern, and a real hard butt. Right here, he was someone’s baby.
What I saw was a grown-up little boy. He looked like a kid who was nervous about leaving for Camp Winnipesaukee. Like the kid who once learned to ride a bike on your street; who used to play in your sprinklers; your hometown jayvee running back.
Soon a few more young people in combat uniforms joined him. The kid’s demeanor changed when he saw them. He swallowed his sadness. He was all smiles. He even laughed a little. He and his GI pals horsed around, they talked about music, girls, life, and whatever else guys his age talk about.
The kid played it off well. You would have never known his heart was breaking.
But just before it was time to board the plane, he excused himself. The young man wandered away from his buddies. He removed a phone from his pocket and dialed.
“Hey, Mom,” I heard him say into the phone. “Plane’s about to leave, I just wanted to say how much I love you. Tell Dad I love him. Tell everyone I love them so much. I will miss you with all my heart.”
He’s a good boy. A good man. A fine soldier.
And that is why I thanked a perfect stranger for his service to our country.
Paige - March 2, 2022 7:01 am
Perfect ♥️ Like you I appreciate our soldiers!!
Love to come home from a hard days work and read your article. It gives me hope in humanity. You and the math teacher have my prayers 🙏🏼
Carol from GA - March 2, 2022 11:04 am
I have two young family members that recently joined the military and you described their departures exactly…especially with their “Mommas”. My heart goes out to all our service men and women, especially now. God Bless America.
Anne Arthur - March 2, 2022 12:29 pm
YES! Been there, done that. It’s so hard. Thanks for your compassion, Sean.
Joy Jacobs - March 2, 2022 11:16 am
Steve Winfield (Lifer) - March 2, 2022 11:32 am
US NAVY 1978 – 1982. I made 2, 7-8 month cruises on USS John F Kennedy. The first time I left all happy & excited. But the 2nd time. I had a brand new wife, had been there done that & did not want to go back. Gut wrenching. Dad carried me to the B’ham airport. We both cried the whole way. 2nd time I’d ever seen him cry. First was 2 years prior when I graduated boot.
I was headed to the Persian Gulf during the Iranian Hostage Crisis & we had no idea what we were getting into.
I wouldn’t wish that feeling on anyone.
NancyB - March 2, 2022 2:08 pm
Steve, thank you for serving. 🇺🇲🇺🇲
Richard Owen - March 2, 2022 2:19 pm
To add a little light-hearted comment to ya, Steve. I rode fast attack boats as a sonarman from 1968-1976 just before your time. Remember hearing an aircraft carrier only once and it sounded like a 16-foot runabout with all four props out of synch. I have a t-shirt I wear to military gatherings when on cruises that says “To find us you must be good. To catch us you must be fast. To beat us you must be kdding.” It also has a big set of enlisted dolphins on the top.
Hope this gives you a chuckle today. Cheers from a VietNam ERA veteran!
MaryAnn A Dunham - March 3, 2022 6:16 pm
Steve, thank you for serving your country.
Maria Linkhart - March 2, 2022 12:06 pm
My eyes are weeping and my heart aching for him and all that are in this very sad position as I write this. God bless and keep them all until their back in the arms of those that love them. So many prayers are needed right now for all these men and women who serve and protect us.
Stacey Wallace - March 2, 2022 12:22 pm
Sean, thanks for that sweet story. That young man is my hero. As I used to tell my students, he does what I’m too afraid to do. Like you, my husband and I thank military people and first responders. Love to you and Jamie.
Dot M - March 2, 2022 2:22 pm
Lana you tell your nephew he’s being prayed over.
Paul McCutchen - March 2, 2022 12:23 pm
My first son left at the beginning of the “War in the sandbox:” The same month he returned my second son left. I know how the dad feels. Both of my boys made it back and now have families of their own. I hope they never have to worry like his mother and I did.
Lana - March 2, 2022 1:01 pm
Thanks. My 20 year old nephew is is Poland right now. He is with the 82nd airborne from Fort Bragg. He grew up on the coast of Alabama so he’s a long way from home in bitter cold. Proud of him but very worried.🙏🏻 🇺🇸❤️
MaryAnn A Dunham - March 3, 2022 6:20 pm
Lana, your nephew is in my prayers, along with all the people of Ukraine, and all people trying to help them prevent Putin from completely destroying their country.
Candace - March 2, 2022 1:40 pm
I’ve been that mom. It is so hard for everyone. Boys leave but men return in their place.
Kate - March 2, 2022 1:50 pm
My heart both breaks and is so grateful every time I see someone in uniform. The sacrifices they and their families make are heart wrenching. The military has changed the lives of so many people for the better, and we so need men and women who have the courage to make the sacrifices that they do, but the cost of freedom is very high and I have no tolerance for anyone who does not have respect and gratitude for these amazing men and women.
Susie - March 7, 2022 3:01 pm
Amen, Kate!! I, too, have NO tolerance for ANYONE who belittles or disrespects our military people. And I think you all KNOW WHO I mean!! Grrrr
Shelton A. - March 2, 2022 1:52 pm
If someone has on a uniform or a vet’s cap (Viet Nam vet, Iraqi Freedom Vet), they get a “Thank you for your service.” greeting. Never had to register for the draft and a badly broken foot excused me from the Navy. Thanks to those who are or did serve is just a habit. Policemen (deputies here) or firemen/EMTs get the same. Thank you for sharing with the young soldier your appreciation for his service. God bless him and all who are serving now in this time of turmoil. God bless you and Jamie.
Gayle Wilson - March 2, 2022 2:10 pm
We owe our freedoms to those who have taken up the call and defend our shores and are now helping in Europe.
NancyB - March 2, 2022 2:14 pm
Sean–Great story. So well told. Didn’t just touch my heart, it squeezed so hard my eyes leaked. Thank you for reminding us that service comes with great sacrifice.
Jan - March 2, 2022 2:18 pm
I pray they all come home safely. Thanking them for their service with a full heart and tearful eyes especially during these difficult times in our world.
CC - March 2, 2022 2:21 pm
With what we have going on now, I have already started to worry about my first grandson who will turn 18 in December. My heart goes out to the brave people of Ukraine. I do pray that this crisis can come to a peaceful end somehow.
James - March 2, 2022 3:50 pm
Ruth Mitchell - March 2, 2022 3:55 pm
Thanks to all the young men and women in uniform who serve our country. And God bless those in Ukraine defending theirs and democracy! 🇺🇸🇺🇦
Anita - March 2, 2022 4:13 pm
Patricia Gibson - March 2, 2022 4:30 pm
Brought me to tears. God bless them all🙏🙏
AlaRedClayGirl - March 2, 2022 4:55 pm
This brings back memories of me as a little girl seeing my big brother go off to Viet Nam. My mother rarely cried, but she did that day and again when later he was injured. I hope to never have to go through what my mother went through. God bless and protect all our military.
Kathryn - March 2, 2022 5:22 pm
Oh, this one made me cry, Sean.
Linda Moon - March 2, 2022 7:43 pm
This IS a great country. I would like to thank the kid, but since I can’t, I’ll thank you for telling his story and the conversations with his family. The kid in him has left. He’s a man. And, Sean, your appreciation of him will linger for a long while, probably when he needs it the most.
LBJ - March 2, 2022 9:33 pm
Thank you, Sean, for sharing the story of a hard good-bye. I’m a proud army brat. Dad’s a Korean War veteran who served 42 years. He was wounded & MIA for a time. The hard fact is, freedom isn’t free. When I pray each night I send up prayers for our military and for their families as they serve too, just in a different way.
May God keep them safe & hold the Ukrainian people close in His heart.
Belinda Bailey - March 2, 2022 9:58 pm
This one made my heart sink. God bless and protect our military.
Sharon Mondragon - March 2, 2022 10:36 pm
You described our “game face” so well. It’s the same one I would put on every time my husband would get orders to deploy. Gotta let him know you can handle the home front while he’s gone and the kids need to see you’re not going to fall apart, since they need you to take care of them. The slightest tremble of a bottom lip during that final kiss, then an “I’ve got this” smile at goodbye. That’s not say I never cried, but I did that in private. Deeply grateful he returned safely each time and is now retired after 26 years of service
Larry Wall - March 3, 2022 7:11 pm
Sharon, our thanks to your husband for his dutiful service for so many years. We do it from love of country and family. But thanks to you and all the wives who keep the world going for, as the saying goes, ‘They also serve who stand and wait’. Both are noble duties.
Linda - March 6, 2022 8:55 pm
Amen! Thanks to the wives (and, sometimes husbands) for the home bound service that they provide.
MAM - March 2, 2022 10:39 pm
I won’t say I’m crying, but I won’t say I’m not. I have a huge soft spot in my heart for veterans, probably because my dad served in WWI and WWII. I was always proud of his service. He came home both times, but when Mom and I went off to Europe, he said: “I’ve been.” I still miss him 51 years after his death! May God protect all our military men and women!
Susie - March 7, 2022 3:05 pm
Mam, you dad sounded like quite a guy. I still miss mine so much, too.
MAM - March 2, 2022 10:42 pm
I hope this comment doesn’t show up three times. That’s how many times I’ve tried to post. The first one said I was posting too quickly! This is what I said the other two times, too. I won’t say I’m crying, but I won’t say I’m not. I have a huge soft spot in my heart for veterans, probably because my dad served in WWI and WWII. He came home both times, but when Mom and I were headed to Europe, he declined to go with us: “I’ve been,” he said. I still miss him 51 years after his death I was always so proud of his service. May God protect all our military men and women!
Susan W Fitch - March 3, 2022 1:41 am
Lana, my grandson is at Ft Bragg too. He’s a helicopter pilot there. His dad, was deployed 3 separate times to Afghanistan and later to Kuwait. So very thankful that he’s home safe with his family. Our military deserves respect and I’m always thanking each soldier for their service! Sean, thanks for this!
Chasity Davis Ritter - March 3, 2022 2:03 am
I saw my cousin in your story every time he left his mom and every he left his wife and still has to leave his family. I saw my husband when he left me and our daughter and his momma to go over seas. I picture my best friends son who just graduated from basic in the marines and will be leaving in a few short weeks. Thank you to all our service men and women and their families who all have pretty heavy hearts right now but are still doing the jobs they signed up to do. Praying for them and praying for those in the Ukraine too. Thank you Sean for recognizing and thanking one today too
Carmalita Starkey - March 3, 2022 1:12 pm
I read your stories every day and I have never commented until now, but I enjoy your stories so much. I wanted to say thank you to all the soldiers out there and veterans. My prayers are with all of you and I’m so very thankful for your service to our country.
Larry Wall - March 3, 2022 7:21 pm
Outstanding, Sean. Thank you for recognizing our great Americans who have served, or are now serving, our nation. They deserve all of our respect and love. May GOD bless and protect them, each and all.
Rhonda - March 3, 2022 8:48 pm
Sean of the South: GI Joe | The Trussville Tribune - March 4, 2022 4:14 pm
[…] By Sean Dietrich, Sean of the South […]
Chris - March 6, 2022 8:37 pm
Great story, as usual. I really enjoy your style and technique. Keep on keepin’ in Brother.
One thing for edit though. It’s not a reverse flag patch on the right shoulder. It’s reverse when it’s on the left.
Right is forward into combat. Worn during wartime.
Left is worn during peacetime.
Sam Seetin - March 9, 2022 12:47 pm
Combat advice for spring butts. Keep butt down until forced settles
Susie - March 9, 2022 2:29 pm
Sam, not sure I understand what you mean?? Can you explain further, please?
CHARALEEN WRIGHT - March 16, 2022 12:58 am