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Thank You for Your Service
By Brian J. Wagner
NAPS Immediate Past President
I wrote a column a few years back that addressed the meaning behind taking the “oath of office” as a NAPS leader. Our country will be celebrating a very special holiday—the birth of our nation—on July 4th. I thought the July issue would be a good time to share a special encounter I experienced with someone while traveling back to NAPS Headquarters as a resident officer. Here’s the scoop.
It was a Saturday evening in early December more than a handful of years ago. I had been invited to Tucson, AZ, Branch 376’s holiday meeting and dinner at the Elks Lodge. As always, branch members were very welcoming and great hosts, as were John Aceves, former NAPS secretary/treasurer, and his wife Marie.
During Saturday’s dinner, I enjoyed the privilege and honor to break bread with many members, give a short speech and install the new branch officers. Before the installation, however, I congratulated and wished all the newly elected officers the best.
I thanked the officers for their service to NAPS and stepping up as leaders of our great association. I recall telling them that in any role you take in life, always have the attitude and fortitude to take on the challenges and responsibilities that come with that role.
I was up early the next morning to catch a Sunday flight from Tucson back to NAPS Headquarters. Once through security, I noticed about 40 young men and women in U.S. military uniforms. Many were getting coffee or snacks, chatting and strolling to their gate. Most were waiting for one of two American Airlines flights to either the Phoenix or Dallas/Fort Worth airports. I was scheduled for Dallas with a later connection to Reagan National in Washington, DC.
As I walked through the terminal after getting my cup of coffee (the first of many that day) and an apple pastry, I looked for a vacant seat near my gate. I’ve learned over the years that other travelers frown if you try to sit in their already occupied seat. My goal was to find a seat at the end of one of the long rows of terminal seats.
I like having my carry-on and computer case next to me rather in front of my legs. Not that my legs are long, but I like to stretch them and test to see if my feet will touch the floor when I sit. Test results still are being audited.
As it was a busy, early-Sunday-morning travel day, I rushed past the many men and women in uniform to find my perfect seat in the terminal. There it was, a spot at the end of a row near my gate. Before sitting, I noticed two seats farther down the row where a young uniformed soldier, about 22 years old and slightly over six feet tall, was all crunched down in one of those chrome and faux leather terminal seats. He was sleeping and not too comfortably.
So, as not to be so anxious to take my seat and possibly disturb this sleeping soldier, I did my best to quietly sit. After being seated, I pulled out my iPad to begin reading the book I had recently downloaded.
At the time, I was traveling about 40 weekends out of the year for NAPS. Airports became my second home and, technically, American Airlines my second vehicle. I know how weary and tiring it can be to travel. Unfortunately, as I began to read, I must have swiped too hard left because all of a sudden the soldier jumped right up from his sleep and said, “Man, I was out.”
I turned slowly toward him and raised my hand and apologized for having bothered his sleep. He smiled, nodded and said, “That’s okay. We’ve been here since 5 a.m.” Because I had already bothered him, I thought I might as well ask where he was headed.
He told me he was going on leave to Pierre, SD. I acknowledged that I, too, had been to South Dakota many times visiting Chamberlain, Deadwood and Rapid City, but never made it to Pierre. I said I also had visited Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse.
As we talked, I asked him what his military plans were. He said he was going to Ranger school. I told him that was very impressive. He gave me a nod of thanks and smiled.
As we talked more, I discovered he ultimately was heading to Phoenix. I told him to enjoy his leave because he earned it. Just before we boarded to go our separate ways, I wished him all the best at Ranger school. I also thanked him for his service.
That is when he gave me a strange look and said, “Thanks, but I haven’t done anything yet.” I paused for a few seconds and said, “Yes, you have. By putting on that uniform, you have demonstrated you are a leader by serving and representing our great country.” I wished him a happy holiday and told him to be safe. He nodded, smiled and thanked me. Again, he deserved my thanks.
It only took a few minutes of my time that morning to make a lifetime memory by talking to a young soldier with a lifetime of experiences ahead of him. This young soldier made a life-changing choice to take an oath to represent, protect and serve our great country. Although this soldier did not think he had done anything worthwhile, I hope our small talk helped him realize he already did something worthwhile by serving in uniform.
It is highly unlikely our paths will ever cross again. Our conversation may not seem like a big deal, but to me it was a big deal; he made a lasting impression on me.
When you think about the time we have on this earth, time is more valuable than money. On that early Sunday morning in December, I could have just sat in my chair and kept to myself, head down, reading and ignoring life around me. But life is not just about keeping your head down. It’s about looking up and forward. It’s about recognizing and thanking those, such as this soldier, who are making a positive difference in the world.
My intentions that weekend were to enjoy some NAPS fellowship, engage with members and proudly install local branch officers. I had no intention of waking a stranger at the Tucson airport, especially a young soldier. However, as it so happened, he awakened me. That awakening was my realization that it takes only a few moments in your busy day to take the lead and deliver encouraging comments to a stranger.
At the end of the day, never underestimate that everyone has the ability to make a difference in the lives of others and in this world. When the opportunity presents itself, as it did for me that Sunday morning in December, I encourage you to take a few seconds or minutes to thank the men and women currently and proudly serving in our armed forces.
Also, as we celebrate the birth of our country this July 4th, I want to again thank all the men and women in uniform, as well as first responders, our veterans and the families of the brave soldiers who gave the ultimate sacrifice to serve and protect the freedoms our great country enjoys.
In appreciation for those in our armed services and veterans, it is an honor that my July ice-cream-flavor-of-the-month recommendation is one of my favorites: Ben & Jerry’s Americone Dream.