Mon, 25 May 2009 11:05:21 +0000 – By David PolyanskyPresident, New Strategies Group
Editor's Note: The author served with the 1st Battalion, 23rd Marines in Al Anbar, Iraq from 2004 - 2005.
It was a cold and bright winter morning when the Marines of the 1st Battalion, 23rd Marines departed Kuwait City International Airport -- a stark contrast to our arrival some seven months earlier when the temperature was a "balmy" 140 degrees.
[caption id="attachment_11693" align="aligncenter" width="221" caption="The author in Iraq. Photo courtesy of David Polyansky"][/caption]
Once we became airborne, those of us seated the starboard side of the aircraft witnessed a breathtaking sunrise over the Persian Gulf. It was at that very moment many of us felt comfortable, for the first time in months, in letting our guard down and appreciating the beauty of the moment.
You see, so many beautiful moments in previous months simply could not be appreciated. The sunsets, the palm groves bordering the Euphrates River on one side and the gleaming desert on the other, the region's rich historical heritage, and our interaction with smiling, cherubic Iraqi children -- all were overshadowed by security concerns or mission goals.
As we entered the central airport terminal that evening, at least one hundred locals greeted us as if we were part of their own families.
It was as if God recognized that we had been deprived of such beauty and decided to give us an amazing sunrise, symbolizing our new beginning, as our going-away present. Hours later, after a little too much celebrating during a changeover in Germany and an anxious trans-Atlantic flight, a very different sight greeted us on a mid-March Sunday evening: the tiny, picturesque town of Bangor, Maine. After months of sand and sullen Iraqi cities, the contrast couldn't have been greater.
Still, many of us walked off that aircraft dreading the scheduled two-hour layover in that small northeastern airport. We were cranky and simply wanted to make that final leg to California to see our families and friends.
Then suddenly, there they were.
As we entered a private area of the terminal, an even more extraordinary scene unfolded: a sea of elderly men and women, young girls and boys, fathers, mothers, veterans and disabled persons. Or to offer a more appropriate and heartfelt description: simply "Americans."
As we entered the central airport terminal that evening, at least one hundred locals greeted us as if we were part of their own families. Lined up on either side of us, they showered us with hugs, kisses, handshakes and words of encouragement, expressing how proud they were of us. It felt as if the battalion had just won the Super Bowl or won a major political election. Unlike our brothers and sisters in arms 30 years earlier, we truly felt the warmth of a welcome home.
After the enthusiastic reception, we were ushered to a room arrayed with cookies, beverages and most important, cell phones for us to use to let our families know we had finally arrived in-country. These perfect strangers from a remote town selflessly spent time catering to our every need - ensuring that each Marine had access to a phone or had a cookie to sneak onto the plane. We were overwhelmed by their display of kindness and gratitude.
Many of us had the opportunity to converse with our newly adopted family members, several of whom were also veterans who could have captivated us with their own memories of the Battle of the Bulge or what it was really like during Tet. But they only wanted to learn about us - where we were from and who was waiting for us back at home.
When it was announced that our plane was ready to depart, the spirit of each and every one of these tough Marines had been renewed- and I'll admit I needed some private time to wipe away a tear or two. Who wouldn't feel humbled to have his first hug in more than seven months come from a 70-plus-year-old widow who treated you as her own grandson? If making us feel welcome and loved was the objective of the "Main heroes" that Sunday evening - and it surely was - than they were more successful then they will ever know.
In fact, as our unit filed out toward our gate, we came across a U.S. Army unit who had just returned from a similar t our. They had the same ragged and worn out look as the 1/23 had just a couple of hours earlier. We knew that was about to change.
In a sense, though, it was awkward and difficult to be a recipient of such a heartwarming welcome that day, knowing that so many of our fellow Marines, Airmen, Sailors and Soldiers would never have that experience - because they had made the ultimate sacrifice in the defense of our country and our own lives. As we went wheels up one last time, it was hard not to think about all of the families who, at that very moment, were attempting to cope with the loss of a loved one rather than preparing for a joyful reunion.
In the same way, all Americans should feel uncomfortable about spending Monday absorbed in sales, car racing and barbecues on a day that should really be focused on that sacrifice and the freedom it has bought us. Memorial Day should be about taking time from our busy lives to visit a local veterans cemetery, participate in a service or simply spend time with your children reflecting on the brave deeds of America's heroes - and thereby, laying the groundwork for generations of heroes to come.
But our recognition and appreciation shouldn't even end there. Whether on a cold March evening in Maine, a crisp fall morning in Montana or a sizzling summer afternoon in Miami, we would do well to follow the lead of our greeters in Brunswick by honoring and serving those who have laid their lives on the line for us on the other 364 days of the year - when the banks are not closed, a full day's work must be done and the kids need to be picked up at school. We must do this because, as those "simply Americans" so wonderfully demonstrated, Memorial Day should be more than a singular day of remembrance - it should be a thread of sacrifice that weaves together our collective freedom.
You may donate to the Maine Troop Greeters at 287 Godfrey Blvd., Box 6, Bangor, Maine 04401.
Editor's Note: David's mother, Alice Rekeweg, is a member of the volunteer Patriot Guard riders- a motorcycle club that rides in support of returning fallen troops and guards the memorial service from protesters.
David Polyansky is president of the New Strategies Group-- a strategic/media consulting firm. He served with the 1st Battalion, 23rd Marines in Al Anbar, Iraq from 2004 - 2005.