From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

The Cabbie

In March 1971, while serving in Vietnam as a combat engineer with the Eighteenth Engineer Brigade at Fire Support Base “Roberts,” I received a severe head wound. Through a somewhat circuitous route, I ended up at the Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C. After three operations to restore some of my eyesight, I was finally given my walking papers. I ached to return to my home in Atlanta, Georgia.

In preparation for leaving the service, I was transferred to Fort Dix, New Jersey, for discharge. At one of the many mustering-out meetings all departing soldiers attended, I was told that I might want to go home in “civvies” as the military uniform provoked a lot of outrage. I had never really considered myself very patriotic, and my wounds from a mortar blast hardly seemed heroic; yet I felt that I’d earned the right to wear my uniform, and I decided I’d do just that.

Departure day finally arrived. An Army bus drove a group of about a dozen men from Fort Dix to the airport in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Not all of us were Vietnam veterans, but when we stepped off that bus, it made no difference to the group of civilians, men and women, who seemed to know exactly where the bus was stopping. They stood waiting, a sort of reverse welcoming committee.

Physically, I was a wreck. Badly emaciated and weakened from my lengthy recovery time at Walter Reed, I was in no shape to face such a vitriolic crowd. They circled me, yelling and shaking their fists. No one spit, kicked or punched, but their loud words were hot against my face. Hurt and humiliated, I just stood there, shoulders slumped, duffel bag hanging limply from my fingers, unable to respond to a single question or accusation.

Then I noticed a small, elderly man slowly pushing his way through the irate horde. He made his way to me, and looking me right in the eyes, he picked up my duffel bag and asked, “Hungry?” Without waiting for an answer, he set off carrying my bag. The crowd parted as I followed the white-haired figure, who led us out the airport doors to a cab waiting at the curb.

The old man was an airport cabbie; more than that, he was the father of a Marine who had stepped on a land mine. He drove me to his red-brick row house, and we climbed the stairs to meet his wife. She greeted me warmly, as if I were a neighborhood boy returning home.

They introduced me to their son Tim by showing me his high school photos and the trifolded flag the Marines had presented them at his funeral. We sat down to eat our meal, and during grace, I found myself praying silently that there would be no more sons not coming home to eat at their parents’ table.

The man drove me back to the airport, and he sat with me until my flight arrived. As I stood to board my plane, I hesitated, unsure if I should do what was in my heart. In the end, I decided to risk it. Standing very tall, I gave him my very best Army salute, then turned and walked on to my plane.

In 1990, when I went to visit the Wall in Washington, D.C., I looked up the Philadelphia couple’s son. As I stood gazing at Tim’s name carved in the smooth black surface, I wished I could have known the boy whose parents got his Purple Heart—the boy whose “welcome home” was given to me instead.

Robert L. Schneider

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