The Soldier in Seat 1-A

Father David Epps's picture

I had just taken my seat, number 2C, aboard Airtran Flight 569 from Bloomington, Ill., to Atlanta. The day was cold but clear and the sunset was but moments away in a near cloudless sky. I paid the upgrade of $40 for a business class seat because I wanted to read and relax after a busy two days in Champaign where I am helping to start a new church.

I was about to open a book when a young soldier dressed in desert BDUs entered the cabin and seated himself in 1A, a window seat, just in front of me. “The soldiers,” I thought, “look younger every day.”

A few minutes later, an Airtran employee, a tall young man I judged to be in his 20s, approached the soldier and began to talk. Perhaps I shouldn’t have, but I listened. I overheard that the soldier was on his way to Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga., and, from there, to Kuwait then to Baghdad and to the war in Iraq.

“Is this your first time?” the Airtran employee asked. He replied that it was. “I spent a year there,” the employee said and offered a smile and words of encouragement before departing the cabin. A flight attendant with a British accent came and sat with the soldier a few minutes before resuming her duties.

Another flight attendant, a young man, went to the soldier and informed him that the captain was diverting the aircraft so that it would pass by the window where the soldier’s family was waiting to see him take off. “You can wave at them one more time before you leave.”

“You don’t have to do that,” the soldier replied, but the aircraft had already turned.

Word apparently quietly spread throughout the aircraft why the plane was not headed directly toward the runway. When the plane taxied in front of the large windows in the terminal, the aircraft came to a halt so that one young soldier could have a final moment.

“You can wave,” the flight attendant quietly said. The soldier waved to his family. So did the flight attendants and most of the passengers on the left side of the aircraft. I waved too.

Then a man standing with the family, the soldier’s father, came to full attention and offered a crisp military salute to his departing warrior. He held the salute as the plane rolled toward the runway. He tried, the young soldier, valiantly but unsuccessfully, not to cry.

As his face sank into the cabin bulkhead, a flight attendant put her hand on his shoulder and then turned away to spare him embarrassment. The soldier needn’t have been concerned about anyone thinking less of him because of his tears, for the flight attendants were also wiping away their own tears. Behind him, I was weeping too. So were several passengers in business class.

As the plane lifted into the darkening sky, the soldier continued to look out the window until the terminal passed into the distance. During the remainder of the trip to Atlanta, it seemed the flight attendants gave him extra attention. No one minded at all. He was going to war and we knew it. He deserved all the concern, care, respect and attention possible.

I marveled at this young man, and the many men and women like him, who volunteer to leave their communities, their mothers, their girlfriends or boyfriends, their brothers and sisters, and their saluting fathers and go to serve in a war so far away. The courage that is required to offer themselves up in a cause that so many are loudly condemning is enormous.

I don’t know if the young man will ever see Illinois again. Only God knows what awaits him in Iraq. If he returns home, he may be among those who arrive back home maimed and scarred for life.

I was painfully aware that this man, perhaps still in his teens, might face violence, bloodshed, and death. Certainly, the father who saluted him carries these thoughts with him constantly.

I didn’t read very much on the flight home. My thoughts were too serious, too sober. I did, however, do what I knew I could do: I silently prayed for this young man, this warrior, this soldier, this son, for most of the flight to Atlanta.

I prayed that he will soon be on another flight —the flight home to Illinois. May God mercifully grant that he, and all the brave men and women who serve so far from home, be returned to those who love them safely and unharmed.

Before I left the plane, I introduced myself, asked his name, gave him my card, and told him I would be praying for him and for his fellow warriors.

Then I did one more thing — I saluted him.

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