The prompt was arriving at the airport.
My original thought was to have several snippets of conversation from a number of different groups, all about who their heroes are. My first intent was to slam some of the people that are looked up to as heroes.
I think that Brittany Spears is the epitome a poor role model, and has claimed that she is not. However, our youth idolize these pop stars and try to emulate them. Add to her crowd, the sports starts that use steroids or take part in other illegal activites, and we don't have much for our youth to look up to.
The ideal is someone who is famous, but doesn't work hard to get where they are. That is my perception.
The honest hard working hero of my fathers youth is nowhere to be found.
Back to the story.
It all changed as I was writing. When the Sargeant Major showed up, and started talking, I ended up listening to his story and felt like it was him and the young soldier that I needed to write about. Some things that I wanted to bring out, but didn't do a good job at, or didn't have time to develop were that the Sergeant Major recieved a battle field commission, and was actually retired as a major. But, more importantly, he had been an important man with a lot of responsability. He probably had 200 to 300 people working below him. But now, at age 65, he was also adrift, still relatively young and wanting to be active but not knowing exactly where he needed to be or what to do. His conversation with Parker helped him define what he would do for the rest of his life.
Well, here is the story, if you haven't read or heard it yet: (Thanks for listening, we'll see you next week...)
A young man, dressed in blue jeans and a long sleeve shirt, unbuttoned at the neck, slumped down in his seat at the airport terminal waiting area. The summer vacation season was in full swing, but he wasn’t on his way to some exotic and exciting destination. He’d had more than his share of exotic and exciting in the last year.
He watched the ebb and flow of humanity as it passed through the airport and felt uncomfortable and edgy in the crowd. All the seats in the waiting are were taken. Families with excited children grouped together in seats or on the floor leaning against the wall. Business people paced around or spoke on cell phones while other seasoned commuters dozed or read magazines.
An automated message played over the speaker system, “All military personnel and their families are invited to relax between flights in the USO, located on the second floor of terminal C”
A girls voice rang out in a clear soprano above persistent murmur, “Look, Mom, there’s Whitney Steers. I wanna be just like her.” She jumped to her feet and pointed at a tall slender woman who was flanked by two large men in dark suits.
“Don’t be stupid, Julie.” A boy, who by his looks and attitude, could only be the girls older brother. “That’s not Whitney Steers. She probably has a private jet. Besides, who would want to be like her, she’s such a loser.”
“Jeremy, don’t be mean.” Julies mother told the older boy.”And don’t call your sister stupid.”
Julie watched the woman disappear into the crowd and started to sing one of the pop stars hits. Dressed in white shorts and pink tank top, she shifted her hips seductively and sang the suggestive lyrics with an accuracy and inflection that could come only through the obsessive familiarity of a true devotee.
Her mother seemed uncomfortable with the amount of attention her daughter was getting, and tried to hush the girl. “Julie, sit down, you’re making too much noise. You’re bothering people. This isn’t the place for that.”
“Yeah, you’re embarrassing me.” Jeremy said and hid his face for emphasis. “Besides, you look more like Rhoda Dakota.”
Julie sat, stuck her tongue at her brother and got out her hand held game.
A large group of men in military uniform ambled past the solemn young man. He noticed that their uniforms lacked decorations other than their names and rifle marksmanship badges. A few had the rank of private. The rest showed no rank at all. He recognized them as recent graduate from basic training. No doubt on they were on their way to their advanced training. He slouched further down into his chair, covered his eyes with his hand and feigned sleep. He was careful to cross his right leg behind his left.
The voice of one of the men in the group broke above the general chatter of the crowd, “It’s an hour before our flight. Lets go get a drink.”
“Chill Wittacker,” another said. “When we get to Fort Sam we can hit the “O” club every night, and the drinks cheaper on post, than you’ll pay in an airport.”
“Chill? You chill, Banks. I can show you chill.” Wittacker was getting agitated and leaned his chest into Banks who only came up to the first mans chin. “You wanna make me chill?”
“Come on,” A third man said, “let’s go wait at our gate. Maybe there will be a bar on the way, and Witt can blow his spending money, if he wants.”
There were murmurs of agreement from within the group and they moved off.
The man in the chair lowered his hand and watched the cluster of servicemen migrate through the airport. His hair was trimmed short at the ears and back of the neck, and tapered to the short cropped hair at the top of his head. If he had fallen in with the crowd that had just left, he could easily have appeared to be one of them.
"What's the problem soldier?’ A deep, gruff, voice said from the seat next to him. The young man looked to see who addressed him. He was a large man, not fat, but he had obviously been very muscular in his earlier life. He was African American and old enough that the white stubble of what was left of his hair was a sharp contrast to his dark skin.
The highest, or top, ranking non commissioned officer in an army unit, usually a first sergeant or sergeant major was often referred to as Top. The appellation conveys a familiarity, yet the deepest respect. The young man sized the older up, and replied, "I don't know, Top. I'm retired. It's not what I expected."
The older man nodded, and spoke to air in front of himself. "You're right, there. I spent my last ten years as Sergeant Major in a training battalion. I've seen thousands of young men come and go. I can recognize a soldier, and I can also tell when something is getting him down." He paused and looked at the younger man.
"I'm retired now, too, so I know what you mean," he said, leaning on his knees. "What's you name, son?"
"Parker. Matthew Parker. My friends just called me Doc." He sat up straighter, but kept his knees crossed.
"Medic? Hmmm." He glanced at Parker. "You said they called you Doc. Your friends don't call you that anymore?"
"I don't have that many friends anymore," Parker said looking away. He coughed and took a deep breath to cover the sudden flare of emotion that threatened to close off his throat. He composed himself and looked back to the Sargent Major. "Did you plan to stay in for so long, you know, and retire, when you first joined?"
"I didn't join, Parker, I was drafted. Straight from the back woods of Alabama. Eighteen years old, and had never been more than 50 miles from home. I was ready to spend my entire life on that little farm where I was raised. I didn't know anything else.
"You could imagine how I felt, six months later, finding myself on patrol in the back woods of Viet Nam. Fighting for my life. I had my share of friends that I called Doc, too. I wouldn't be here right now if it wasn't for one of them."
Parkers felt his face go hot, and his chest tight, "Well, it sounds like he did his job like he was supposed to." He felt sudden guilt at the vehemence he heard in his own words. "I mean, with all due respect, Top, he must have had to keep a cool head to help someone while under fire."
The older man laughed a rueful laugh and shook his head, "We walked into a booby trap rigged up with Claymore mines, probably stolen from our own supply bunker. There were no cool heads then. We were all scrambling, and screaming and crying like a bunch of school girls. Everyone, but me, that was. I was in a daze, my head ringing from the blast. I didn't have any idea that shrapnel had torn through my arm. I was bleeding to death and didn't know it. Doc held me down and kept pressure over the wound until we could get evacuated.
"I was back in action in just a few weeks, and not a month later, I was holding Doc in my arms, as his life bled away. That first unit showed me what it meant to be a soldier. Those men were my brothers. I would have gladly given my life to save any one of them. I was one of the few, from that group, that actually came home." He looked at Parker, until he returned the Sargent Major’s gaze. "I guess that's why I stayed in. To help train other young men, so that they would be prepared for what they would find over there, and be able to come back home, too."
Though Parker stared blankly at the old man, he did not see him. He saw himself, back in Iraq, riding in a Humvee, joking with the members of his patrol.
"Nice and boring," Cooper said, "Just the way I like a patrol."
"Yeah," Watson said, "but right now I would like to be patrolling the mess hall. What's the hold up out there?"
"It's a check point." Levine snapped. "You know, those places where we stand and hold up other vehicles, and make them wait, when they’re in a hurry? It's karma. It's just our turn to wait."
Our turn, Parker thought.
There was a flash of light and Parker was laying on the dirt road. Everything was silent and his right leg was numb. It wasn't silent, he realized, his ears were ringing. He began to feel pain in his leg that increased as he thrashed around. As his hearing slowly returned, he began to hear the moans and cries of people thrown down in the blast. He rolled onto his side to find the Humvee. He could only see pieces of twisted metal, scattered bodies and fire. Among the wails and screams of the locals he could hear the members of his patrol, his friends. They were calling for him. "Doc, help me." "Doc, I can't see." "Doc, I don't wanna die."
He tried to get up but the nerve endings where his right leg was torn away erupted into new levels of agony. He tried to crawl in the direction of the burning Humvee. "I'm coming," he shouted, "Hold on, I'm coming." The overwhelming pain and the loss of blood conspired against him and he passed out.
"I lost them all. Every one of them." Tears were streaming down Parkers face. "They called me Doc, and I let them down. I let them all die."
"All I ever wanted to do was serve my country. And when I got to train as a field medic, I thought, shoot, here's my chance. I could help my buddies at the same time. Top, I failed. I failed my country and my friends." He wiped his face with his sleeve.
The Sergeant Major looked at the young man for a few minutes, pondering something. Then he said, "Parker, I know it won't help much right now. But down the road, in a few months, or maybe a few years, remember what this old soldier said. You're a hero. You were there to do your job, and you wanted to do it. I saw plenty of men in my days, just turn tail and run when their buddies were on the ground crying for help. Just left them there to die. You would have helped them, if you could have. We don't always get our chance when and how we expect to. You'll get your chance to help, someday, if you keep looking for it."
"Final call for boarding of flight 1442 to Birmingham at gate 19. Please have your boarding pass ready and board at this time." A pleasant voice said over the speaker system.
“That’s me. I’ve got to go.” The Sergeant Major said and stood. Parker got to his feet as well, the right leg of his pants camouflaging the prosthetic leg completely. The older man handed Parker a business card that read, 'Wilson Garfield, SGM (Ret)'. "If you ever need to talk to someone, give me a call. And I mean anytime. If your ever near Tuscaloosa, look me up. My wife makes veal parmesan, just like they do in the mess hall." He started to turn, but stopped and looked Parker in the eyes. "You're a hero son. A hero. Never forget that."
He watched the Sergeant Major leave through the gate, and said as the door closed behind him, "Thanks Top. If anyone would know a hero, I think you would.”
Standing taller than he had in months, Parker walked to his own gate, with a limp, perceptible only to himself.