I’d never laid eyes on them before. Didn’t know their names. Didn’t recognize their faces. But I knew right away who they were.
There were the telltale signs — the name badges that I didn’t really bother to look at or even need to see, the white passenger van, the soldier in a Class A uniform opening the door for them, the other soldier in the ACU (that’s the uniform that has replaced the camouflage BDU for the Army) accompanying them. It was the third Thursday of the month.
What that means is they were coming from the monthly memorial dedication ceremony at Fort Stewart, where the post unveils a marker and an eastern redbud tree to honor a soldier killed in action overseas. I’d been to more of those ceremonies than I care to recall. I’d talked to dozens of families and family members with those name badges, stepping out of those white passenger vans, escorted by those soldiers in Class A uniforms and joined by those soldiers in everyday uniforms.
They came into the restaurant where I was eating lunch, just as I stepped outside to answer a call on my phone from my brother. Our paths crossed momentarily as I held the door for them.
I returned inside and told the waitress what I thought was going on — that this family sitting down to eat was coming from a memorial ceremony for a family member who didn’t make it home from Iraq.
I told my waitress that I didn’t think that family should have to pay for their lunch — their day had been long enough already. I was hoping the restaurant would be magnanimous enough to take their check and put it away. If not, I was prepared to dig deep.
After a while, the manager came over to me. I told him who they were — not so much their name, but their situation — and I didn’t think they should have to pay. I was willing to leave my credit card behind, if that’s what it took.
He had to call his general manager. He came back and said he couldn’t write off their lunch. I asked him to bring me their check, getting a little emotional as I did so. I make no bones about getting a little overcome when talking about soldiers and their families, not after having known so many hundreds of them, if not thousands. He called over their waitress and asked for their bill.
He didn’t bring it to me. Instead, another customer, sitting at a table adjacent to the family, had already taken care of the bill.
We talk a lot about doing what we can for these families of soldiers who are fighting overseas for a year or more at a time. I tell my friends who are opposed to the war, especially in Iraq, that I understand their point of view and that the only thing I ask is they not do anything that would harm the morale of the families here. Say what you want about the president — leave the folks in uniform, I tell ’em.
This isn’t about me and the money I would have gladly spent for that family. It’s about somebody stepping up and taking care of the loved ones left behind when a soldier doesn’t make it back.
That someone beat me to the punch in footing that bill doesn’t bother me. I’m just glad someone else was swinging.