Friday, February 27, 2009

MP Kelly

The day began with a very short flight from Lansing, Michigan, to Chicago. I sat next to a soldier in full desert winter camouflage, with “MP” on the sleeve. She could not have been more than nineteen.

I tried engaging her in conversation, but the best I could get from her were a few one-word answers, and no eye contact. She was headed to Afghanistan. She is stationed at Bagram. She had been on leave. She was originally deployed in September. The morale of the troops is good.

I thought that maybe members of the military were being instructed to keep conversation with civilians to a minimum due to the conflicting opinions on the war in Afghanistan and the troop reduction in Iraq, so I decided to leave her alone. It was only at the end of the flight, when I thanked her for her service and told her that I hoped she stayed safe, that she finally looked at me.

She was crying.

I don't know if she was sad to be leaving home again, or afraid of what lay ahead of her, but as she turned to thank me, I looked into the eyes of a teenaged girl. In the span of 30 minutes, as the miles rolled by below us, the stoic face of battle that is ingrained as one endures the transformation from “person” to “soldier” had fallen away, exposing the very real emotions of the actual human being beneath it.

Many of us forget that there’s a real person behind the war mask. Just as the solider is conditioned to pack away their humanity as part of their indoctrination into the military, society has obliged by focusing more on the uniform than the person – it is easier, that way, for the civilian to reconcile the death of a soldier – it is much less emotional if we simply reduce that soldier to a uniform.

Here’s a perfect example: a couple of years ago, my wife, the kids and I visited our friend, a Lt. Colonel in the Marines, and his family. He was in the middle of a stateside deployment and teaching weapons systems at Quantico, Virginia. He has been deployed to Iraq twice, and may deploy yet again to the Middle East. He and his family gave us the full tour of Washington, D.C., including Arlington National Cemetery, where we were awestruck to see so many famous names: JFK. Robert Kennedy. William Howard Taft. The Unknown Soldier. The list goes on and on.

Honestly, the tour of Arlington felt similar to a trip to another historic tourist attraction – I was reminded of my frequent visits to the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, whose seriousness has been sanitized thanks to the passage of time – at least until we made it to the newer part of the cemetery. There we saw simple, obviously fresh graves with small index cards indicating name, rank, branch of military, date and location of death – some within the past two or three weeks. Still, though more emotionally compelling than some of the older graves and tombs, there was still that familiar, and almost comfortable, level of detachment.

That all changed when I heard the sobbing of my friend’s wife behind me. In a slightly older section, from a year or so before, she was standing in front of the headstone of a man whose military career had paralleled her husband’s – a friend and neighbor whose family had grown along with her own, and whose wife and daughters, about the same age as her own, were now without their husband and father due to a mortar round that happened to find his office in a green zone outside of Baghdad.

That sobbing brought the cold reality of war into focus, and for the first time, after about two hours of wandering through a history of American military death, I finally felt the emotion – a glimpse of the human inside the uniform.

Were I quick enough this morning, I would have remembered that moment, and thanked MP Kelly for reminding me that very courageous, very human people protect our country.

And I hope that one day soon MP Kelly will take that short flight again, this time from Chicago to Lansing, and happily reunite with those in her life who are no doubt so very proud of her service to her country.