I am a veteran. Of this I am fiercely proud. I didn’t walk around in my uniform for 25 years constantly thinking about how I was providing security for my nation and its citizens. To me, it was my chosen profession; a path not everybody takes. I was, and am, proud that what I did had meaning and importance and relevance. When I joined the Air Force, the military was not necessarily considered the best route to take for a young person. It was a different time. In 1982 we were less than 10 years removed from the Vietnam War and the mixed national emotions and divisiveness that it spawned. A lot of us joined for financial and fiscal reasons . . . but some of us stayed because we loved what we were doing and what it meant.
My father was a veteran as well. Air Force . . . same as me. My relationship with my Dad was . . . let’s say complicated. We went years with little contact. There were reasons. They will stay between me and him for now, but they were real. The Air Force and our service was something we shared and something that should have been common ground for us, but that never happened. We were never able to establish ourselves as fellow veterans. I understood what it meant to serve, but I don’t think I understood what it meant to be a veteran. It took an old man in a khaki windbreaker to help me understand what being a veteran means.
I was preparing to deploy to Guam with my Air National Guard unit in late January 2002 when my brother called and told me that Dad had a stroke. I wasn’t sure what to do. My colleagues were literally pushing my airplane out of the hangar for launch. I was an aircraft mechanic assigned as a crew chief on one of the aircraft taking us to Guam. I was talking to Dad on the phone in our break room as they pushed the plane out. He urged me to go “do what you’ve got to do”. He assured me that he was fine. I picked up my flight bag and got on my plane. A week after we set up operations in Guam, I was on a night shift and decided to call my son, Parker, to say good morning before he went to school. His mom answered the phone. “Oh my God,” she said. “I can’t believe you called. I just got off the phone with your aunt.” She hesitated. “Your Dad had another stroke. It doesn’t look like he’s going to make it.”
The rest of the next week happened in a blur. I told my Flight Chief, who happened to be a close friend. He found me an open phone in a quiet spot. I made phone calls and started making arrangements. My brothers were en route to Ohio where Dad lived. My youngest brother is a registered nurse and he gave it to me straight. Dad wasn’t going to get any better. We agreed that they wouldn’t wait for me to get there to turn off life support. Later that same morning I was on a civilian flight through Tokyo to Seattle. At SEATAC I called my brother and learned that Dad was gone. I decided to go home to Fairbanks before heading to North Carolina for the funeral.
I got to North Carolina two days later. The funeral was well-attended and just what Dad would have wanted. On a display table near his urn was an American flag folded into a display case and Dad’s service ribbons. Among them was his Vietnam Service Ribbon and campaign stars. I looked at them for a long time. Toward the end of the ceremony, my brothers made a point of giving me the American flag in the triangular display case. “We figured that you would like to have this,” my brother told me. He smiled at me. “It seems appropriate.”
I left a few days later and took my Dad’s flag with me. I wasn’t sure what to do with it, but the lady at the airline counter said there would be no problem taking it as a carry on. I got on the flight from Greensboro to Chicago with no problem. At O’Hare, I had to get my bags and check in for my flight to Alaska at the counter. Again, the lady at the counter urged me to carry the flag on the airplane. I took my flag and headed for the security checkpoint. This was just a few months after the September 11th attacks and airport security was still in a state of flux, especially in big hubs like O’Hare. Airport personnel were still manning the security points and armed National Guardsmen were providing security.
I approached the checkpoint and put all my belongings on the x-ray machine conveyor belt. An elderly man in a khaki windbreaker and a blue hat that proclaimed he was a World War II veteran in gold letters was in line in front of me with his wife. The hat listed the Division he was assigned to. I am not sure I remember correctly, but think it was the 9th Infantry Division. He looked at the flag on the conveyor and then looked at me. His sharp grey eyes softened a bit behind his thick glasses.
“Where did you get the flag, son?” His voice was clear and direct, yet compassionate. He knew where I got it.
“From my father’s funeral,” I said. He smiled at me.
“I figured. I am very sorry.” He exhaled deeply and looked at me again, like he was doing math. “Korea? Vietnam?”
“Vietnam,” I answered. “Nha Trang 65-66.”
He put his hand on my back. “He’s one us, son,” he told me. “I have seen a lot of those over the years. He’s with friends now.” He hugged me.
“Walter, why are hugging this young man?,” his wife said behind him. He turned to his wife and explained that I recently lost my father who was a veteran. She hugged me too. It was their turn to go through the checkpoint. I followed and was patted down. I moved to pick up my belongings. There was a problem.
“Is this yours?” A man in a maroon sports coat was holding my flag box. I nodded. “Could you open this up, please? We have to look in it.”
I wasn’t sure how to react. Open my flag display? “I didn’t have to open it in Greensboro.”
“Well, we aren’t in Greensboro,” he said. I didn’t like the tone or implications. “We have to look in every closed container.”
“Can I just take the back off of it? Then you can look in it.” I was getting a little panicky. Opening that flag case seemed a whole lot like opening my father’s casket. I know that sounds weird, but I really didn’t want to unfold the flag.
“That flag basically came off of his father’s casket and you want him to unfold it to see if there is a bomb in it?” My quick take on Walter was that he didn’t talk around a point.
The man in the sport coat looked around. “We have to look in any closed container,” he repeated. A crowd gathered behind me and the commotion got the attention of two armed National Guardsman who were providing security. The made their way over.
“That just doesn’t seem right to me,” Walter said. “You can’t just go digging through a man’s funeral flag.” Somebody behind him agreed.
The man started to undo the fasteners on the back of the display case. Somebody else objected. He looked at one of the soldiers. “Can you open this and unfold it please?”
The soldier looked at him. “No,” he replied. “If your x-ray machine didn’t find anything, then there isn’t anything. I knew the soldier’s opinion didn’t matter much, the two were in different chains of command. However, I appreciated the support.
I looked at the man at the security checkpoint. My hands were shaking when I took the case from him and worked each fastener. I gently took the flag out and showed it to the man. He reached over and opened each fold, causing it to open completely in my hands. I looked at him as he searched through the flag. He saw me looking at him. “I really am very sorry,” he said. I nodded. He was just doing his job. These were troubled times.
I took my bags and my flag and case and moved through the line. Walter and his wife were waiting for me. My throat hurt and my eyes burned. “Give it to me,” he said.
I handed him the flag. he draped it over his arm and turned to the soldier who had followed me. They each took an end of the flag and stretched it between them. The other soldier snapped to attention and presented arms with his rifle. Walter and the soldier folded the flag in half lengthwise and then again. Then Walter began deftly folding the flag in a perfect triangle. Behind me people were standing straighter. Hats were removed and hands were placed over hearts. Walter finished the series of triangular folds with a field of blue covered with white stars on the top. He carefully adjusted the creases and then took the flag and held it to he chest. The years had melted off of him and he seemed to stand straighter and taller. His grey eyes kept their gleam and direct gaze as he approached me with the flag. He placed the flag back in the container. He looked me in the eyes again. “I present this flag on behalf of a grateful nation . . . ” I didn’t cry much when my Dad died . . . until then.
Walter and his wife group hugged me just like nobody was watching. I tried to thank him. “Don’t mention it son . . . that wasn’t the first time I’ve done that.” His wife placed an arm around his waist. She smiled at me and reminded Walter they had a flight to get to. We hugged again and went toward our separate gates. I shook hands with the soldiers and went to find a bar.
I had a lot of time to think while I waited for my flight. I knew what it meant to serve in an active capacity, but I didn’t know anything about being a veteran until that moment. It would take some thinking, but I was getting it. Being a veteran is a common thread of dedication and service that binds generations together. Walter didn’t know anything about my father except that for a time in his life he served his country. I could have told Walter all about the issues my father and I had, but it wouldn’t have kept him from folding his flag. Walter knew all he needed to know about my Dad. I get that now.
Today that refolded flag is displayed in its case next to a similarly displayed flag. The other one was my wife’s father’s funeral flag. He served in the Navy JAG Corps in the early 1970s. Walter didn’t know anything about my wife’s father, but I am sure it wouldn’t have mattered. He would have folded my father-in-law’s flag too. It’s part of being a veteran.
Happy Veterans Day to all who have served our country. Your dedication and service is appreciated. We will talk again soon on This Side of the Diaper.