Early on Feb. 9, in the cold, black and blue hours of a winter Sunday, I said nothing.
I first saw you in your camouflage fatigues patiently waiting in the airport security line.
I spotted you later shuffling around the gate with a wide smile on your face waiting to board the six-hour, non-stop flight from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport to Seattle-Tacoma International.
I watched a hurried woman stop and thank you for your service. You were so kind, so gracious, so humble.
Still, I said nothing.
I don’t know your name, where you were coming from, or if Seattle was even your final destination. I could have asked all those things.
More importantly, I could have thanked you for serving our country.
But, I didn’t.
I’ve certainly launched those conversations before. When it’s been convenient, I’ve stopped other service members in airports, restaurants and gas stations around the country. Like so many others, I’ve paid for meals when they were behind me in line or tucked into the neighboring booth.
This morning I was too tired, too grouchy and too annoyed at my nasty head cold. Don’t you understand I’d been up since 4 a.m. and already driven 90 miles to the airport?
I saw you again when you boarded, but I was far too busy bemoaning my minuscule middle seat and complaining about our high row number. I told my seat mates we were so far back on the plane, our arrival time was 15 minutes later than those in first class.
Eventually, I settled in and allowed my mind to wander up to your row. Where were were you stationed? How long had you been in the military? Were you going home for good, or only for a few short days that pass too fast?
Who would be waiting for you on the other end? A beautiful bride who can barely catch her breath at the thought of seeing you descend the escalator? Young children with crayon and construction paper signs? A mother and father who will whisper prayers in your ear as they wrap their grateful arms around you?
I could have asked those things, too, but I was preoccupied with missing my own family already and we weren’t even airborne.
Soldier, sometimes I'm gone for a day or two, maybe six or seven. Did you know I’ve even had a few trips run two full weeks? After grueling school assemblies and exhausting book signings I absolutely ache to return home to my loved ones.
Fourteen days away from my family! In a row! I bet you can't even imagine that, can you, Soldier?
I wonder where your service has taken you. What have you witnessed as you’ve sacrificed so much to protect and defend America and her allies? Have you been sitting at a small, metal desk in some green zone? Or are you a member of a special operations unit where losing your life is a real possibility every day you punch in?
Honestly, it doesn’t matter.
I believe the uniform doesn't care where you're serving and what your specific assignment is, it only cares that you're wearing it. Honor doesn't come from any particular type of service; it comes from the service itself.
I wish I’d told you that, too.
Instead, I blew my nose and felt sorry for myself and the work piling up back home. I’ve got too many projects, too many columns, too many Facebook posts to manage and an eternity of emails to sort. Working for myself presents so much unpredictability, anxiety and stress.
What a drag, right?
As for you and your colleagues in uniform? All you do is strap on a vest and hope that routine desert patrol isn’t your last.
Soldier, if I could have those moments back, I would shake your hand and thank you on behalf of everyone who feels more safe and secure because you're doing work that many of us would not be courageous enough to do.
I would promise you that never again would I find myself so caught up in my own selfish discomfort to let you pass by. And I would suggest that if servicemen and women can do what they do, I can certainly do what I do.
I would say thank you for bravely going to work when you have a head cold and when life puts you in the middle seat.
I would say, “thank you.”