Since my return home from Iraq last month, friends and readers continue to ask me, “Did your deployment change your outlook about the war?”
I can best answer that by telling you about an encounter I had last month in a restaurant. I was sitting with two sergeants from my Air National Guard unit when the waitress asked us if we needed to split the check.
I was sort of anxious to get my day started, so I snatched the check. After the inevitable tug of war with the sergeants, they relented, and I placed the check in front of my plate.
A few minutes later, a man approached us and pulled the check off the table. “I’d like to take the check,” he said with a crack in his voice.
His demeanor told us that there was more to this offer than was obvious, so we didn’t argue. We thanked him. He nodded and quietly walked toward the cashier.
We sat another few minutes and continued our discussion concerning the airmen we’d recently deployed. Momentarily, he returned to our table. By now, he’d collected his composure, and we invited him to sit.
He started his story by telling us he’d just sent his only son to play football at Utah State. His voice cracked again and he held up a finger begging our indulgence for another minute.
“I know you guys are sending a lot of people out who are just like my son.” Again, a whimper. “But they aren’t coming back. I can’t imagine what it’d be like if my son didn’t come home.”
When you come to those moments and you don’t know what to say, it’s probably best not to spoil them with words. So, we simply nodded our head and injected more “thank yous.”
Neither this man nor his family members were veterans, but because he saw the recent absence of his son as a sort of deployment, he could vaguely empathize with the military.
Then he took his imagination a step closer.
“I can’t imagine seeing a car drive up to my house,” intoning the possessive, “my.” He said he “couldn’t imagine,” but his tears told me he could.
People asked me how things have changed. They have changed in that now I see every young person as someone’s child.
Now the conflict seems very personal. It’s not just something our military is fighting. Those service members belong to us. They’re ours. They’re real. We need to feel this in a personal way, as did my benefactor, who could see the face of his son as he dropped him off in the dorm.
This is the kind of personalized imagination we must conjure whenever we teeter toward war. Is the war worth waging “our” sons and daughters?
This kind of question can best be answered in the Golden Rule, which says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” My paraphrase for this situation is, “Send America’s sons and daughters to the wars that you are willing to send your own sons and daughters.”
This man I met imagined what it would be like to send his only son. He left the restaurant thanking us for being willing to serve.
Outside in the parking lot, I told the sergeants, “Boy, that’s never happened to me before.”
“Oh, really, major?” asked one of the sergeants in a tone that emphasized my pay grade. “I guess they think you can afford it.”
“Stick with us,” the other one chimed. “It happens to us all the time.”
As it should, sergeant, as it should.