Memorial Day 2010

I arrived at the airport early because I was hopping on an international flight, because thunderstorms were already delaying the outbounds to Atlanta, and because nearly nine years ago, a few religious extremists flew airplanes into buildings and blew up the world as my generation knew it. It introduced us to a country where security is valued more than civil liberties, where shoes can carry a deadly weapon, and racism is almost tacitly approved as long as the target comes from a nation that worships Allah.

Memorial Day 2010 was a light one for the airports. The line at the Delta counter consisted of me and a nervous man with olive skin. Mid-20s, Middle Eastern, and in line to get on a plane on Memorial Day, I could understand the kid’s nerves. I wanted to tell him that he should seem less jumpy or he was going to have a hard time at the security line. But I didn’t. I watched him walk away, a dark face in the middle of America’s scared, white travelers.

At the security gate, I moved with precision. In just a few motions, I’d whipped my laptop from its bag, put my liquids and gels into a bowl, and shoved my shoes onto the conveyor belt. The year I was born, people smoked cigarettes on airplanes. Now, I can’t carry more 3.5 ounces of toothpaste in my bag. It’s hard to figure out who to blame, or of it makes more sense to just embrace the small toothpaste tubes and move on.

I went up the escalator and past a newspaper stand where one banner headline read “Afghanistan: America’s longest war.” When I was a kid, we were afraid of the Soviets. I didn’t know anybody who looked like Patrick Swayze, and our school mascot was the Tigers, not the Wolverines. War was a Hollywood concept. Now, as my son tunes into life, America is embroiled in its longest war. It’s a battle most of America barely knows we’re fighting, and a war we entered for such a myriad of reasons that even well-educated people barely understand the meta-reasoning that pushes us to finish what we started there so many years ago.

I arrived to an empty gate. I was way too early. I watched the nervous kid get on a plane after walking by a white guy with a shaved head and desert camouflage fatigues. This new kid was shipping out and stood in the embrace of a girl with a walnut ponytail and tears streaming down her face. I wondered briefly how the girlfriend was allowed past security. Then I decided it didn’t matter. This man was going to fight America’s longest war, and the girl in his arms didn’t believe she would ever see her man again. The soldier wiped at his eyes. He wasn’t sure he was coming back either.

Just then, the ticket agent told me there was one more seat on the plane and if I wanted to get out early, I could. I stepped up and passed the soldier on the way to the gate. I couldn’t hear what his girl was saying, but I felt it anyway. A hour before, I’d kissed my family goodbye and it hurt like hell. I was only leaving for a week. The solider was taking off to fight a war nobody understands and he might never again come back to kiss this woman.

My seat was in the back of the plane, and, remarkably, directly behind the nervous Middle Eastern kid. I tried to step around him. I tried to explain that he would have to sit down before I could pass. He was jumpy, eyes going every which way, clutching tightly whatever he had in his hand. That’s when the thought entered my guilty mind. Ten years ago, it would never have occurred to me to note how nervous this guy was. Worse, if the kid had been a little white boy, I probably wouldn’t have given it a second thought. I hated myself for even noticing and mulled the cost of postmodern white guilt.

The pilot, a large white woman, took the mic and led us through what we could expect on the 35-minute flight. I kept my eye on the back of the kid’s head. The pilot said, “Finally, on this Memorial Day, I’d like to take a moment to thank the service members we have on board.”

There were two of them dressed almost exactly alike, one of them the tearful soldier I’d seen at the gate. Slowly, applause rose up from the other 90 people on the plane. It got louder, then louder, then loud enough for me to think about what it means to live in America today. It means that the veterans we honor on Memorial Day are not our grandfathers or their fathers. They are our brothers, sons, and boyfriends. They are the people we send off on Memorial Day to fight in America’s longest war. They are the people we bring home in government-issued coffins.

I hope my sons never have to understand what it meant to live on September 10, 2001 and what it’s been like to live ever since. I hope their understanding of the past nine years is akin to my distant idea of Vietnam. I hope they never have to look at a person on a plane and feel guilty about what comes into their head. I hope they can achieve and fully embrace what my wife and I teach: people are people, no matter what they look like, no matter what they worship, no matter where they live.

Moreover, I hope my kids understand that Memorial Day is not an excuse to have a BBQ. It’s a chance to realize that the cost of war is tears at an airport gate when you hug someone you love, and maybe more tears 12 months later when you hug an American flag-draped casket. I hope they understand that the men and women in fatigues don’t start the wars. They do all they can to end them, and we should thank them for that as often as we can. We should also pay respects to those who may be missing in action and those that might’ve been taken as prisoners of war. Unfortunately, this sort of thing does still happen, leaving a lot of families without closure. I hope that my kids will consider finding some pow flags for sale to show their respects.

Now I sit in the Atlanta airport’s E concourse. It’s the international wing and what the airport calls its “window to the world.” Ten feet away from me sits a man in his late 20s. He’s eating a salad, at the end of a hard-bound book, and on his way somewhere far away.

He’s wearing camouflage, which is ironic, because he is the only thing I can see right now.

Brad Willis

Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

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7 Responses

  1. Jason says:

    Airport agents have the ability, at their discretion, to issue a pass to allow a family member through security to accompany a ticketed passenger. Likely what happened there. Think of an unaccompanied minor, they will do that for parents.

    The other option is to buy a fully refundable ticket, go through security, and then not take the flight and get a refund.

  2. April Henry says:

    Thank you for honoring our military people. My husband has been to Iraq once and may have to go overseas again before he retires. I worry about it sometimes, but try not to cross bridges before I get to them. My perspective has changed, just being a part of his life. It matters that others recognize and respect their sacrifices.

  3. Easycure says:

    I was in the military (Air Force) during the Cold War and was fully aware that nuclear weapons aimed directly at the desk I worked. The men and women in the military today face a far worse threat; terrorist attack that can come at you from any angle, at any place, anywhere. War has changed, and it’s uglier. And it will be the longest one of them all. Maybe it’s endless.

    That said, the men and women in today’s military completely understand that and would love for you to thoroughly enjoy a weekend BBQ today. Every day. Otherwise, their work, sacrifices, and ultimately, their lives, will have been wasted. Yes, the deaths of war are a great cost; but if we don’t enjoy the freedoms protected because of their sacrifices, we’re doomed.

  4. Thanks for the story. It was so right on the money. I know your children will grow up fully understanding what this holiday is for thanks to you and Michelle, and they will grow up in the “new” world we have had since 9-11 with a different set of eye than we had at their age, and I’m sorry for that. Innocence was lost that day and since then we are reminded all to often that freedom comes at a high price.

  5. Dr. Chako says:

    I remember September 10, 2001 as a pretty nice day 😉

    I never get tired of hearing people say good things about the military. I was proud to serve for as long as I did and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. As an aside, we were organizing our garage for a sale we’re having next week, and I found a bunch of my military gear. My youngest put on my beret and was “playing” Army. I’d be very proud if either or both of my sons goes in to the service, but I hope they do it of their own free will. If they do join, I hope it’s the Air Force.

    Don’t tell anyone I said that.


  6. pokerpeaker says:


    ‘Nuff said.

  1. December 31, 2010

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