11: A Hero’s Welcome

11: A Hero’s Welcome

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

A Hero’s Welcome

The joy of meeting pays the pangs of absence; else who could bear it?

~Nicholas Rowe

I stared at the flight board. It estimated landing time as 5:45 a.m. I checked my phone. It read 7 a.m. Toby Keith’s “American Soldier” played in the background for at least the tenth time.

“My feet hurt,” my seven-year-old complained.

“Why do they have to fly in before the sun comes up?” my teenager wondered.

“These soldiers just spent the last eighteen months getting shot at while defending our freedom. The least we can do is show our gratitude when they come home,” my husband explained.

The announcement thundered over the loudspeaker: “Flight 348 from Kabul to Dallas has landed.” We cheered and gathered around the entrance while a volunteer at the Dallas/Fort Worth airport explained, “These soldiers were fighting on a battlefield in Afghanistan less than twenty-four hours ago. This is the first time they’ve touched down on American soil in over a year. Do not attempt to hug or touch them. If they reach out to you, it’s okay to reciprocate. But it can be alarming if a crowd rushes toward them.”

We stood behind the roped-off perimeter, gripping our flags and straining to see the first group exit the plane. A single soldier stopped short at the entrance, glanced around and broke into a huge grin.

A blanket of flags waved through the air and applause erupted as he strode past the crowd. Veterans stood in a salute and Boy Scouts shouted, “Thank you.”

The next guy peeked around the corner. He slunk past with his head low, never making eye contact or accepting gifts from volunteers.

The next soldier must have heard cheers before rounding the corner. He ran out with his hands in the air slapping palms like an NBA player celebrating a victory. Other soldiers followed him, openly wiping tears.

During the lulls between welcoming the next group, we offered our cell phones to service members. They called relatives and said they’d made it home safely. This time gave us an opportunity to listen to their anecdotes and learn about their families. We heard stories about their passion for freedom and their loyalty to our nation. One young soldier handed my phone back, hugged me and thanked me for what she called “your generosity.”

My generosity? A soldier who volunteered to spend a year and a half fighting terrorists in Afghanistan thanked me for my generosity?

Several awkward seconds ticked by before I could manage a response. “The honor’s all mine. And thank you.”

~Belinda Cohen

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