Saturday, November 10, 2012

Encouraging Words on Veterans Day

 Real Hero by Jaye Lewis

            I only noticed him out of the corner of my eye.  I knew he was a Marine from the cut of his uniform, with its tightly pressed military creases.  Then I heard him, speaking low, with a kind of hiss.  He was not speaking to me.  He was speaking to my sergeant, who was the Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) in charge of the Military Information Booth at San Francisco International Airport.  I served with her there as a U.S Navy WAVE during the Vietnam War.
            I heard his tortured attempt to speak.  "Hep nee, peesss!" I understood him, “Help me, please!”  He struggled with every word.  I was grabbing my purse to take a much needed break, but I was caught by his struggle to make himself understood.  I could hear the irritation in the sergeant's voice as she demanded that he "speak up!"
            I paused as he began again, "I-nee-to-change-ny-tickek!"
            I understood every painful word he said.  He needed to change his ticket.  What was wrong with my NCO?
            "I CAN'T understand you!" she said, irritated.  "Speak up!"
            How rude! I thought, as I turned to put down my purse.  I then looked at him, as he again struggled to be understood.  No wonder he struggled.  Before me stood a tall, strong Marine officer, perfect in his pristine uniform, missing half his jaw!  My God, I thought!  What is she thinking?!
            "Excuse me, Sir.  I can help you," I said.  Without thinking, I shoved my sergeant aside and maneuvered my way in front of her.  I could see the man's teeth through the wire that held his face together.  I was of little importance, just a lowly seaman apprentice.  However, I knew what this man needed -- someone who cared enough to listen.  I studied his eyes.  I saw the pain, and I felt his humiliation.  Soul to soul, I knew what to do.  I smiled a big, welcoming smile.
            "Yes, Sir!  How can I help you?"
            Slowly and painfully the words, tortured and slurred, escaped from his wired mouth.  I listened with all my heart, and I watched his eyes.  I prayed to God to help me understand him.  And I did!  More than I can express.  I gave him the directions he needed, and his eyes smiled his thanks.  When he walked away I called a friend at one of the airlines who adopted him immediately, by personally attending to his needs.
            I thanked God for this opportunity to help a real hero; however, I also knew I was in trouble.  As I looked at my sergeant, I felt anger rise in me -- at her rudeness and total lack of sensitivity.  She studied me for a moment, her eyes narrowing.
"I could put you on report,"  she said, showing no emotion.
"…and, I could put YOU on report for insubordination to an officer," I retorted, my eyes spitting fire.  I hurled the stack of  blank “report sheets” towards her.  "Be my guest!" I said, as I grabbed my purse.  "I'll be on break." And I left.
            I went on to supper, because I knew it would be a long night.  I was troubled, now that my "dander" was down, at the thought of going before a “Captain's Mast”, or hearing, to explain my insubordination to an NCO.  I was certain it would be very unpleasant. 
As I neared the United Airlines counter, I saw him again.  His luggage was being checked, and his back was towards me.  Then, as though someone had told him where I was, he turned, and he looked at me.  Our eyes met for an eternity.  Then I smiled.
            This soldier and hero, in the United States Marine Corps, pulled himself up to his full height, and with all the military perfection in his being, he gave me a sharp, military salute.  I was thrilled!  WAVES did not salute indoors, especially when we were not wearing our cover or hat, but I pulled myself to attention and returned that salute.
            Moving on to the cafeteria, I walked a little taller, and I felt a little older.  In one small encounter I had grown from a twenty-one year old girl into a twenty-one year old woman.  And, truth be told, I felt more like a lady than I ever had before in my whole life!  I felt... just a little bit... like a hero.

© Jaye Lewis, 2001

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