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.


  1. This is a beautiful tribute, Kev. It's true that we often see the uniform instead of the individual; it's easier that way. The reality has hit for me because Buchanan has lost six boys in the past few years to the war. Of those six, four of them spent their respective senior years in my senior classes, where I came to know them as bright, funny, charming, and yes, even at times challenging young men. Little did they know then that they'd be walking out of our halls into the hell of war; little did I know then that there would be four funerals to attend. I thank God that there have been many more who have returned to a happier ending-I pray that MP Kelly's return is one of those happy endings.

  2. Kevin, that was a tremendously moving post. Thanks for addressing the human side of those who serve. I know, first hand, how it feels to be acknowledged and thanked for my service but also know what it feels like to be looked at with contempt for wearing the uniform. I never served in Iraq (or Afghanistan) but I did serve during the Gulf War while I was in the Navy. I’ve been to many an airport wishing my fellow Sailors and Marines a fond and tearful farewell. I’ve also been blessed to welcome home (safe and sound) those same Sailors and Marines after their tour(s) were completed. The kind words of a stranger are like a giant shot of acknowledgement for our military folks. MP Kelly may have been feeling sad or afraid but I’m sure your words provided some solace for her as she went back into the fray.

    I remember the day that I left boot camp for my first duty station. I was at O’Hare and scared out of my mind, but I was proud. I was wearing my Service Dress Blues (Cracker Jacks) and thought I was hot shit. I was the only one in my unit going out that day so I was alone. I’m guessing most folks knew I was a Boot (just out of boot camp) as my rank and lack of ribbons gave that away. I got to my gate and waited for my plane to arrive when I was approached by a wonderful Grandmother of a lady. She offered me some Banana-Nut bread (I LOVE banana-nut bread) and proceeded to tell me how proud she was of me. I just got out of boot camp?! The most I had done for our country was memorize the 11 General Orders and the Chain of Command. She didn’t care. All she saw was the uniform and that was good enough for her. She told me about her husband (who had passed 20 years before) who had also been a Sailor. Her story of his first time leaving (for England during WWII) was poignant. She told me how hard it was going to be to say goodbye and told me to remember that what I was doing was for the benefit of the people of our country. I was flabbergasted. I had been cocksure and thought that I was “all that” but now I felt as if the whole country depended on me. Her parting wishes for me were to enjoy my time in service and to always remember that there will be people out there thinking about me, praying for me and pulling for me. That was all I needed.

    I have very many close friends still in the military. I hear the stories of leaving and the stories of coming home. I pray every day for each and every one of them (over there) to come home safely. I also pray for our leaders to have the courage to do the right thing. We’re in a precarious time and these things must be handled delicately as there are ‘people’ involved (not only a Sailor, Marine, Soldier or Airman).

    Thanks for taking the time to write your story. I’m glad you finally made it home safe after having your flight canceled.