From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

The Greatest Compliment

My small unit was one of the very first to arrive in Sarajevo after the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords. A day or two after our arrival, I began making the rounds, visiting other units in and around the city.

One of the American communications outfits I went to see had set up in an old Ottoman fort high on a mountaintop overlooking the city. The road to the fort was along a mountain path, barely passable in our humvee. At one point, the road squeezed between a sheer vertical drop on the left and a small village on the right. Absolutely pressed against the road, the tiny community was wedged into a minuscule space between the path and the wall of the mountain.

I was riding in the front side passenger seat of the humvee with my arm out of the window. In the arcane reasoning of the military, because we were part of an international force, the national flag emblem was affixed on the right shoulder of our BDUs (not on the left as was normally the case). Thus, the American flag was showing on the sleeve that was nearer to the open window.

In the United States, there were—and still are—many mixed emotions about the mission in Bosnia. Some were shared by the troops who were sent there. But whatever our feelings, it became immediately clear that the people who appreciated us most were the very old and the very young. Our presence allowed the old people to live their lives in dignity and the young to play in the sunshine, and both groups were always grateful.

As our vehicle inched through the village, two elderly Muslim gentlemen were drinking tea at a small table set right next to the road. We were so close that as we inched by, one of them reached out and touched the flag on my arm and said something to me in very passable English.

I smiled at him and for the rest of the drive wondered at his words. When I returned to my quarters, I asked about the significance of the expression the old gentleman had spoken. It turned out that he had used an ancient phrase—words with meaning so deep they were reserved for use in his culture only to express the most profound appreciation.

What the old man said when he touched the American flag was, “We will love you for a thousand years.”

Thomas D. Phillips

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