In spite of the camouflage, I can see her sharing last minute hugs with the family she leaves. Behind the irregular shapes and shades of beige and green, she begins to fight her first battles; the struggle to hold back tears and to remain strong for those who aren’t. As they watch her stride toward her departure gate, they savor the last glimpses of their soldier while their minds are filled with hopes of her safe return. She doesn’t look back. She can’t now. All she would see would be blurry images of those she holds dear to her heart. Her eyes are now filled with tears, just like those who stood with her moments before. Within hours, the distance between them will turn into thousands of miles, however the distance isn’t captured by a measurement; but rather it’s the mere fact that they are now apart and for a great deal of time.
The airport employee holds out his hand for Sergeant Johnson’s boarding pass, scans it and then very respectfully he boldly thanks her for her service. His words are spoken with profound sincerity. It is obvious that he is not speaking from a memorized training script. Following just a few steps behind Johnson I’m taken by the emotions welling up within me in just the few minutes that have passed. I think about how her friends and family are feeling, how the airport employee has shown his respect and thankfulness, and how the other passengers are reacting. I wonder why Johnson is pulling on my heartstrings. It’s not the first soldier I’ve seen, nor is it the first time to see ‘good byes’ made in an airport. But today, it is just different.
There she sits, mysteriously patient, in the back row of first class. As I wait in the holding pattern just within the door of the plane, I think about how there is probably an automatic upgrade to first class for the military and how honorable the staff of the airlines should make her flight. This will be one of the last times this passenger touches U.S. soil for a while, if ever again. A passenger just ahead of me speaks to Johnson, but I’m not sure what was said. I wait longer and my heart beats even faster. I know that I cannot walk by without speaking; the urge is too strong to contain as I feel it welling up inside. What will I say? I try to come up with something creative; something that she hasn’t heard before and something that doesn’t sound foolish. Before I know it, I’m standing in front of the one who will soon face much more than I will ever see. Even though I try to prepare for conversation, nothing seems sufficient. “Where are you headed?” Without expression she replies, “Afghanistan”. “You are in my prayers and I want you to know that I appreciate your service”. My heart continues to beat faster.
As I step slowly in line down the aisle looking for seat 9D, I wonder what it is that she actually does. Will she be on the front lines, or back at the barracks assisting the injured? Will she be standing on her feet all day cooking for the troops? What is her specialty? What is she called to do? I try to focus more on locating my seat as the line comes to a halt. Row nine is only just past first class. With Johnson almost within reach, I stow my cute lime green backpack overhead and sit in seat “D”, just one row behind first class. With two more empty seats next to me, I wait for the other passengers to board. I’m sure I’ll have to stand up and move for the next to sit down at some point, so I’m sure to not settle in just yet. The window view is a favorite, but for this flight, the aisle suits me just fine. I have a clear view to the fascinating soldier.
For only moments at a time, can I take my eyes off of her? It is as though a magnetic force is pulling my spirit toward hers. Her every move is like a picture saved in my memory. She gently strokes her silky black hair bound in a perfect circle on the back of her head, as if to make sure not one single hair is out of place. The flight attendant interrupts her concentration by offering another beverage and this time there is a snack. I continue to watch as if a movie is playing on a screen. The attendant returns promptly to ensure every need is met for her VIP travelers. As if I’ve seen a falling star, I make a wish that Johnson take advantage of every snack and drink offered because going forward such little luxuries will be very limited. She makes a choice without hesitation, consumes the chintzy bag of chips and settles in for this leg of her journey.
With appetite suppressed, the time has come for Johnson to take advantage of the opportunity for some extra sleep. I can only imagine of what this warrior has endured knowing her deployment date been set and drawing near. The mental stress would only contribute to her pre-war fatigue. As she begins to drift off to sleep, her muscles flinch. Is she dreaming of playing on a Sunday afternoon in the park with family and friends? Maybe she is having a nightmare about being in a fire-fight with enemy fire screaming past her. Does she dream of flying away, escaping the battle she can see below? Maybe she is dreaming of a sweet return home. Johnson will surely wake with a pain in her neck from the awkward sleeping position. Sleeping in a tightly packed airplane does not compare to what she will soon be exposed to. With eyes shut, she dreams. I stare in wonder.
Slowly Johnson wakes, positions herself back upright in her seat and begins once again to ensure her hair is tightly bound, all silky strands in place. Waking up in an unfamiliar place, she looks around as if to make sure nothing has changed since she drifted off. Reality sets back in as her flight is headed to the war zone. Her flight wasn’t a nightmare after all, then again, maybe it is. She reminds herself that she chose to serve her country and that she will overcome the unknown fears ahead. She is proud to wear the government issued clothing and rugged boots, but now she will be tested far more than boot camp ever prepared her for. The thousands of miles between home and her destination are reducing by hundreds every minute now. Leaning over to look out the small filmy window, Johnson knows the beautiful fall mountainside view will turn into a sandy desert all too soon. In the midst of the storms she will ride out in the future, she hopes to recall in detail this vivid landscape for which she is fighting.
As the flight draws to an end, my heart begins to race with thoughts of how I will never see Johnson again. Not knowing her first name is wearing on me. What can I do in these last few moments? I want to be able to keep in touch with the soldier who unknowingly made an impact on me today. There may be times where she cannot share with her family and friends, but could confide in a total stranger or soon to be friend. “That’s me”, I want to urgently declare. I quickly grab for a pen and paper. I need to pass on a note to her as if it is her last chance to have a new- found friend. I know that she can live her life without ever knowing me, but maybe I could be the one who would be there for her during those tough times. Coming from a conference where a name badge was provided, I decide to use the back for my message. Okay, reality is that it is the handiest piece of paper and I only have a few minutes to get this done. Before turning the badge over to the back, I read over the conference logo and my name clearly typed out. Amazingly, the theme of the conference is fitting for Johnson as it is titled “Survivor- Outwit, Outplay, and Outlast”. Second thought, this theme seems to fit me for this hour of my life. The reminder to ensure seatbelts are buckled, seats are upright, and all electronic devices are turned off, blares over the speakers. Faster I write to finish my message, all with the intention of asking the stewardess, who will soon walk by checking seatbelts, to hand my note to Johnson as she exits the plane. I look around to ensure that I have all of my belongings, all while holding tightly to my only hope of staying in contact with the brave angel who boarded before me today. I wait patiently. I wait. I look around anxiously, but the flight attendant is nowhere in sight. Surely she’ll check on her passengers just one more time before touching down. I wait. My ears begin to pop as we descend lower in preparation to land. Hopes of keeping in touch with Johnson start to wither and optimism turns to pessimism with every foot drawn closer to the runway.
With my body being pulled forward by the momentum of the landing, I find that there are more parts of me being moved than anyone could ever begin to imagine. With disappointment, I gently fold my heartfelt written words as if I’m closing this chapter of my life. At the same time, I look up to see that Johnson is deep in thought as she gently touches her bottom lip with the pointer finger of her left hand. She is intensely pondering over something, but what? From moving several hundred miles an hour and traveling over several states, we now are at a complete stop. The cabin is now depressurized and we are about to be released out of these constrained quarters. As everyone prepares to stand and exit, I’m overwhelmed with a sense of clairvoyance. Sure enough, Johnson turns her head slightly to the left as if she is looking to her neighbor. At this point I know without a doubt that she senses me, just as she has the past hour but chose not to admit it. She boldly turns her head to look over her left shoulder and our eyes meet for the second time, all while feeling as if it was the first. A connection is clearly made. It was as if this was the final moment where the last breath was to be taken and I’m the one who watches so grimily. So much still lies ahead, but this chapter ended prematurely. Happily ever after will only be seen when Johnson’s boots are walking again on U.S. soil and her arms are tightly wrapped around a body which holds a heart that longs for her. For me, the chapter ends with words never to be.