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(This conversation took place on an American Airlines flight exactly one year ago, on Memorial Day.)
I get on the plane and find my aisle seat. A GI in digital desert combat fatigues sits at the window one empty seat away, reading. I see his shoulder patch.
“10th Mountain Division, huh?” I ask.
“Oh,” he says, putting down his book. “Nah, I just wear their patch.”
I lift my eyebrows and laugh. “Really. Well, nice to meet you. Hundred-and-first Airborne.”
“Puking buzzards.” Both of us laugh. He extends his hand and we shake.
“And Iraq. Eight friggin’ tours.”
“Wow. You don’t sound too happy about it.”
“I hate war.”
“Been in that movie. You all-volunteer-Army guys are startin’ to sound like us miserable draftees did back in the day.”
“Man, right now I’m headed back to Afghanistan. Okay, in the last twelve months I got four Purple Hearts. Four!” He holds up four fingers. His hand shakes a little, and in his eyes I see the telltale fixity of PTSD, the standard-issue combat veteran’s thousand-yard stare.
“Yikes,” I say, surprised. “Vietnam — three Hearts and you were done. Army shipped you home. Three-time winners, we called ‘em.”
“Yeah, well, that’s ancient history. Not no more,” the soldier says, his eyes beginning to brim with tears. None fall. “Oh, man, it is so horrible. Well, you know what I’m talkin’ about. And I hear these clueless patriots defending this war, they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. Bad guys!! I hate that phrase! There aren’t any bad guys. There’s just a bunch of people just like me on both sides, everybody trying to kill the guy that’s trying to kill you. Those people we’re fightin’, they’re just like us, man.”
“Yup. Anybody’s been in combat knows that. Viet Cong, they were some brave people, just trying to get us out of their country. Bad guys — sounds like something a four-year-old would say.”
He looks at me. “Um, you don’t sound like the typical GI, dude.”
“I was a conscientious objector,” I tell him. “I’m a Baha’i, so I didn’t carry a weapon.”
“Really. What’d you do?”
“Dang. Hard core. That’s cool. I know some Baha’is back home in Arkansas. Good folks.”
“Thanks. We try. Baha’i writings say
‘Let none contend with another, and let no soul slay another.’”
He looks out the window, thinking. A few moments of silence pass.
“You know,” he tells me, “some people in the airport back there bought me lunch, thanked me for what I’m doing. If they only knew.” He shakes his head and squeezes his eyes shut tightly.
“Know what you mean,” I say. His eyes open, meeting mine for the first time.
“Maybe it’s better,” he says quietly, “if they don’t know.”
“You think?” I ask. “Maybe if people actually knew what war was like, they wouldn’t be so ready to send guys like you and me.”
“Yeah. I couldn’t believe these civilians who bought me lunch – one of ‘em said ‘We kicked the Taliban out of Afghanistan.’ We. I mean, I was polite, but I felt like saying ‘What do you mean ‘We’, Mr. Bermuda shorts? I didn’t see you over there. And it ain’t no video game either. You mess up you don’t get no do-over. Dead is dead. These people with their yellow ribbon stickers on their bumpers, they don’t have a clue.”
His sudden agitation makes him pause.
I ask “Think you’ll get over it, man?”
I shake my head no.
“There it is.”
Then a voice on the PA interrupts all conversations and says, too loud and with feeling: “On behalf of our pilot and first officer and our entire flight crew, we just want to thank the brave men and women of our Armed Forces, who give so much to defend our American freedoms!!”
Everyone on the plane claps loudly, except the GI and me. He silently shakes his head back and forth and rolls his eyes ruefully. His expression slowly turns to disgust as the applause on the airplane swells.
A broadly smiling flight attendant comes down the aisle, reaches over and taps him on the shoulder. She says loudly “There is one seat left in first class, and it would be my honor and pleasure to give it to you!”
The GI shakes his head again, frowns deeply, gets up and collects his carry-on. He reaches out a hand to shake.
“Good luck, man,” I say. “Keep the greasy side down.”
“Thanks. And the shiny side up,” he says with a faint smile. “You know, I’m’a need some luck, buddy. So how can I find out more about this Baha’i Faith?”
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