Friday night was a perfect way to kick off Veterans Day weekend. I was flying in and out of Dallas for Big Brothers Big Sisters meetings. Like for many of us, the week felt long and I simply just wanted to get home. What started off as a standard business trip back to Newark became one of life’s journeys for me – a flight which grounded me in the meaning of this weekend.
As I boarded my flight and got settled in, the flight attendant announced that we had "five very special guests on the plane": Five people coming home to their families after a tour of duty in Afghanistan. The plane immediately erupted into applause.
He breaks free from the pack. He cuts the line and starts running towards his family. I stand back and watch the warm, loving embrace of a father, husband, family man and fighter for our country. A blessed homecoming.
- Carlos Lejnieks
The plane took off and when the "fasten seat belt" light turned off, I decided to go to the back of the plane to tell the flight attendant I wanted to buy a round of drinks for the soldiers. I came to discover that I was late to the game — some others had offered the same.
I went back to my seat and found out that the guy next to me was one of the soldiers on his way home. We talked the entire flight back over scotch on the rocks. He told me about his recent six month tour of duty and that his 12 years of military service were coming to a close. He told me about having survived bomb attacks and having lost men along the way. He told me about his tours in Bagdad as well as Afghanistan. What particularly tugged at my heart was that he had only seen his son briefly at birth. Now, he was reuniting with his boy. He told me about how he would dream about this very moment. Stationed in a “blackout zone” in Afghanistan afforded him time at night to play this moment out in his mind.
At night his troop wasn’t allowed to have any light source on in fear of revealing their position. So once night hit, he was dreaming about his wife and little boy. He dreamed about how the plane landing home would feel like — Would it land smoothly? Would it confront turbulence? He dreamed about how his family would react. Would they be there? Would they cry? Would they have balloons? How many of them would show up? He dreamed about what he would do as he deplaned — Would he run towards them? Would he cry? Would it be like in the movies? He then shows me a picture of his little boy.
We start our descent into Newark and he tells me that he was starting to get nervous. He was so composed the entire time, but now I feel a difference. His leg starts to shake. We deplane and I end up walking ahead of him. As I walk through the airport at the far off distance I see his family eagerly awaiting his arrival. Balloons, signs, flags, smiles, tears. And then I see his wife and little boy. I start tearing up. I turn back and he breaks free from the pack. He cuts the line and starts running towards his family. I stand back and watch the warm, loving embrace of a father, husband, family man and fighter for our country. A blessed homecoming. A blessed way to start this weekend. Not all are making it home and many long for this welcome. What a blessing it was to be on this flight in order to ground me for this Veterans Day weekend.
Carlos Lejnieks is CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Essex, Hudson & Union Counties (Newark, NJ). A graduate of Brown University and London School of Economics, in 2012 he was named to the Aspen Institute's "Emerging Leader" cohort.