Seeing A Fallen Soldier Home
By Colleen M. Getz
His name was Marine Lance Cpl. Justin Wilson – although I did not know it when his life brushed mine on March 25 at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Lance Cpl. Wilson was not there in the terminal that afternoon; at age 24 and newly married, he had been killed in Afghanistan on March 22 by a roadside bomb. A coincidence of overbooked flights led our lives to intersect for perhaps an hour, one I will never forget.
I did not meet his family that day at the airport, either, although we were there together that evening at the gate, among the crowd hoping to board the oversold flight. I did not know that I had a boarding pass and they did not. I did not know they were trying to get home to hold his funeral, having journeyed to Dover, Del., to meet his casket upon its arrival from Afghanistan.
I also did not know that they already had been stuck for most of the day in another airport because of other oversold flights. But I did not need to know this to realize what they were going through as the event unfolded and to understand the larger cause for it. No matter how we as a nation have relearned the lesson forgotten during Vietnam – that our military men and women and their families deserve all the support we can give them – despite our nation’s fighting two wars in this decade, it is all too easy for most of us to live our lives without having the very great human cost of those wars ever intrude.
But it did intrude heartbreakingly that day at the airport gate. It began simply enough, with the usual call for volunteers: Anyone willing to take a later flight would receive a $500 flight voucher. Then came the announcement none of us was prepared to hear. There was, the airline representative said, a family on their way home from meeting their son’s body as it returned from Afghanistan, and they needed seats on the flight. And there they were, standing beside her, looking at us, waiting to see what we would decide. It wasn’t a hard decision for me; my plans were easily adjusted. I volunteered, as did two women whom I later learned sacrificed important personal plans.
But we three were not enough: Six were needed. So we stood there watching the family – dignified and mute, weighed with grief and fatigue – as the airline representative repeatedly called for assistance for this dead soldier’s family. No one else stepped forward. The calls for volunteers may have lasted only 20 or 30 minutes, but it seemed hours. It was almost unbearable to watch, yet to look away was to see the more than 100 other witnesses to this tragedy who were not moved to help. Then it did become unbearable when, in a voice laced with desperation and tears, the airline representative pleaded, “This young man gave his life for our country, can’t any of you give your seats so his family can get home?” Those words hung in the air…”
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