Standing in the terminal at Lindbergh Field waiting for our zone to be called, blinking the sleep from my eyes, an image became clear among the monotonous crowds and routines of early morning air travel. A woman, eyes red and puffy, an incurable frown under tear-streaked cheeks, clutched two young, crying girls under each arm as she walked away from our gate. I looked toward the gate entry in time to see a man, late 30s, in light camouflage shirt and pants and brown boots, looking back at them before disappearing through the entryway. When we reached our seats on the plane, I realized he was sitting at the window seat directly behind mine. I shot him a quick sympathetic smile before sitting in my seat. Airplane passengers donning the desert variant Marine Corps Combat Utility Uniform are not an uncommon sight in San Diego.
My husband and I started discussing his upcoming interview for a faculty position at Cornell; holding hands, kissing, excited at the possibilities and excitement the future had before us. During a lull in conversation I blindly averted my attention out the window and heard the man seated beside the soldier begin to speak.
“So…are you being sent on a tour?” he asked, trying to sound casual and cool but falling short.
“Yeah, my first,” the soldier answered, apprehension in his voice.
“Well, good luck man.”
A moment of silence followed.
“Where you headed?”
“What’s the mission?”
“Supply weapons to the Afghan army. Make sure they can defend themselves. Basically we are training them.”
The two strangers were silent again before the soldier spoke up.
“It’s the first time I’ve been called after 20 years. My name finally came up. My wife and daughters came to the terminal with me. That was pretty tough.”
“Yeah, that would be tough. How old are your daughters?”
“Thirteen and eleven,” he answered. Both men gave a nervous chuckle.
There was another pause.
“How long are you out there?”
“One year,” he replied, and I took my husband’s hand and squeezed it as the soldier forcibly exhaled. “One year,” he whispered again to himself.
Our plane rose amongst the pink clouds of the southern California sunrise, over football field end zones marked “Marines”. The strangers sat silent, for the rest of our trip.
published 6 May 2012