Sharing the burden

CORRY NAVAL AIR STATION, Fla. -- One of the clichés I invariably read during my morning review of the Early Bird--the Pentagon's daily compendium of military-related newspaper articles--is how the American people aren't "sharing the burden" of the Global War on Terrorism with the United States Armed Forces.

The articles pontificate about how tax cuts and yellow ribbon magnets on the backs of sport utility vehicles and pick-ups are a poor exchange for budgetary and operational struggles we face every day. At times--after a particularly hard week for the squadron or a rough day for our engaged forces--I've found myself nodding in agreement.

A couple of weeks ago, my in-laws came down for my wife's promotion. Now, my in-laws aren't what you would describe as military literate; living in the suburbs of Boston keeps them pretty insulated from the realities of military life at home and abroad. In fact, my mother-in-law still refers to my wife as "being in the Army," even though Nicole entered the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps in 1988 and just completed her 15th year of active duty with a promotion to lieutenant colonel.

In any case, after I got them home from the airport, we started catching up and I asked them how their flight went. Frank, my father-in-law, told me a story about the trip. It's a pretty common one, but worth retelling.

During their layover in Atlanta, they stopped into one of the restaurants for some breakfast. Frank related how there was a "soldier" sitting at the bar eating his breakfast alone...A-bags at his feet. I, as I tend to do, immediately started peppering him with questions he couldn't answer; "what unit was he from?" "back on mid-tour?" "what uniform was he wearing?" "was he just leaving boot camp?"

Ultimately, Frank had no idea whether this soldier was a combat veteran and Bronze Star winner on his way back from the desert, a young man headed to his first assignment after basic military training...or if this "soldier" was even in the Army. But what he did know was the young man wore the cloth of our nation.

And Frank did what countless other Americans have done in similar circumstances.

He quietly asked the waitress to put the soldier's bill on his tab, and left the restaurant without bothering the young man while he ate.

I could see Frank tearing up a little bit as he relayed this story, because even though his only direct connection to the military are a couple of field-grade officers with a nice house in a nice neighborhood on the gulf coast of Florida, he still understands the sacrifice involved in putting this uniform on every day.

As I said, it's a pretty common story. On my last trip through Dallas on the way to San Angelo, I watched the entire B terminal erupt in applause as a jet coming in from Iraq unloaded its shipment of soldiers heading back to Fort Hood. I myself have been approached and thanked more times than I can recall, and even had my bill picked up by fellow citizens as I've traveled the country. If it hasn't happened to you will.

Which brings me back to those articles about "sharing the burden." More often than not these days, I find myself skipping them rather than shaking my head in agreement.

The whole point of what we as uniformed, civilian and family members of the armed forces do is to keep the burden off the shoulders of those who chose something else for their lives. For me, an occasional "thank you for your service" from a fellow citizen is enough.