Sunday, May 4, 2008
What Would Ben Do
I WONDER WHAT BEN WOULD DO?
I am a sloper. That is I work on the North Slope of Alaska and I have the privilege of living in the North West corner of Montana. I fly back and forth every two weeks. Two weeks on, two weeks off. Being away from my family is hard but it is a small inconvenience compared to the true sacrifices endured everyday by our military personnel and their families.
I am a frequent flyer and as a result, I receive upgrades on a regular basis into the first class cabin. In August of 2004, on one of my return home flights from Seattle to Spokane, Washington, I had the privilege of meeting a man named Ben Stein. Ben is a summertime resident of Northern Idaho. The name is known by many and associated by most with a comical game show host. He is comical and perhaps one of the friendliest celebrities I have met. There is a great deal more to Ben then being funny and friendly. Ben is extremely wise. He did after all work for two U.S. Presidents. A man of values who speaks his mind and tells it like it is. When Mr. Stein writes or speaks of our armed forces, it is done with passion. Being the son of a veteran, and a veteran myself, I appreciate these traits.
The year 2004 is my year to be home for the holidays. I left the slope on the morning of December 20th. I had not slept well the night before, most likely because of the excitement of going home. During the brief sleep that I did manage, I had a dream. In the dream, I was standing in a line at an airport. A young soldier approached the line and waited. During a conversation, it became clear that he had just returned from Iraq. In my dream, he wore green fatigues of another era. I thought to myself, how strange that the soldier was traveling in his fatigues but it was after all just a dream. I boarded before the soldier and I found myself asking, “What would Ben do?” I took my seat in the first row isle and waited. As the soldier stepped through the door of the aircraft, I stood up and told him that he would take my seat and I would take his. The dream ended there and when I woke, I remember thinking, “What the hell was that all about?” Although just a dream, it made me feel good. I assumed that articles written by Mr. Stein had prompted it or had at least played a small roll in my subconscious travels.
The next morning as my plane left the slope, headed for Anchorage, I gave little thought to the dream. Due to a number of delays, I arrived at the SeaTac Airport later than planned but I was fortunate enough to get a seat in first class on a slightly earlier flight to Spokane than I was scheduled for. As I stood in line waiting for the boarding process to begin, I looked toward the airline service desk and waited momentarily while my mind absorbed what my eyes were telling it. A young soldier stood at the counter. The uniform was that of a new era. An era brought on by a new kind of foe. Desert fatigues, designed to blend in with the blowing sands of a Middle Eastern battlefield. As in my dream, I found myself thinking how strange it was seeing him travel in his fatigues. The soldier took his place in line and was immediately engaged in a conversation with curious travelers. The patch on his left shoulder told me that he was a member of a Mechanized Infantry unit. The big red “1” on his right shoulder identified his battalion. He said that he had just flown back from Iraq and would not be returning. He explained that he was a gunner on a Humvee and when asked by the less sensitive people around him, he gave graphic descriptions of events that one day might not be so willingly given up.
All of us who stood around him were thinking how it must feel to return from battle in one piece. Although we did not know him, I am sure everyone else was as glad as I was that he had made it home. I knew that once we boarded the aircraft I would be giving my seat too him. The dream that I had the night before was not just a dream, it was opportunity knocking. An opportunity to show some appreciation.
As if from nowhere, an outstretched hand reached for the soldier. A tall thin kid with wide eyes stood in front of him. We all stood looking at the kid who wore the dark long belted coat and spit shined shoes of someone fresh out of basic. The first thing he asked was, “Did you just get back from Iraq?”
“Yes, yes I did!”
The younger kid looked at him with a thousand questions in his eyes. “I get shipped out after Christmas!” Suddenly the good feelings I had moments before when the first GI announced he would not be going back were down graded a bit. I looked at the youthful face of this young man and contemplated his fate hoping that one day he too would be standing in his fatigues announcing to strangers that his tour was complete. A moment of silence penetrated the air. The older experience GI looked at him and asked, “Are you old enough to drink?” The reply was yes, and he put his hand on the young man’s shoulder and they walked away from the rest of us heading for the little establishment located near our gate. It reminded me of something from an old World War II movie. I wish I had had my camera at the ready.
As I boarded the aircraft, I took my seat in one D and waited. People poured into the plane, and one of the last people to board was the GI in his fatigues. I stood in front of him and asked what his seat assignment was. I told him that he could stow his gear and take my seat. He looked at me for a moment and said very slowly, “Ok.” As I turned and headed to the coach seat, I noticed that behind the soldier was the younger soldier, but before he walked through the first class cabin, the man seated in one C stood and told him to take a seat. He too then moved to coach. That was truly outstanding. It is a short flight from Seattle to Spokane but it will always be the most memorable for me.
Just prior to landing, the flight attendant approached me with five photos. He handed them to me and told me that the man I had given my seat to wanted me to have them. I was thrilled. The photos were of the typical Iraq scenes, everything light brown including the buildings. Children posing for the photographer, tanks, Spanish soldiers. Great photos that I shall keep with other items I consider valuable. One of the photos depicts a line of Humvees near a village. The scribbled message on the back choked me a bit, “VILLAGE RAID AFTER MY FRIEND DIED!”
We landed in Spokane and after I deplaned, I walked through the terminal heading for the shuttle bus. The two GIs stepped out of the bathroom I was passing and my friend in the fatigues walked up to me and shook my hand. He then reached out and gave me an awkward hug thanking me. The best I could come up with was, “Thank you two for your service to this country.” I walked away and down the stairs into the main terminal lobby. Standing there where several family members of these two and it was easy to tell which one was the mother to the one who had just returned from Iraq. How she must have felt at that moment.
Still high from the experience, I wrote an E-mail to Mr. Stein and told him about the dream and the actual events that followed. His response was what I had expected. He said he would have upgraded them both and if given the opportunity I know he would do exactly that.
For those who read this, let me ask, what will you do when given the opportunity? Will you pretend that you do not see them? Will you simply buy a sticker that says you support them thinking that this marks you as a caring American. Opportunity is knocking at your door. Take a moment and walk up to the next person you see in uniform and shake their hand, say thanks. Buy him or her, a cup of coffee or pay for their lunch. When you see a vehicle in the store parking lot and it displays the license plate of a POW, walk your kids up to the driver and let them shake his hand. It will make a number of people feel good.
Saying thanks to those who serve should not be exclusive to Veterans Day, Memorial Day but rather inclusive to everyday. Opportunity is knocking! What will you do?
This story is the one that was edited by Ben Stein a few years ago. The story was used as the bases for a column in the Spokesman Review written by Rebecca Nappi and published on January 1, 2005.