Earlier this week I saw a hero. Make that several dozen.
While passing through a DC airport security checkpoint, I heard a rolling wave of applause moving towards me like an approaching summer thunderstorm. As I wrestled to gather up my shoes, belt, and laptop, the applause suddenly erupted around me as people turned towards a slow moving group carefully making its way through the terminal.
Dressed in red t-shirts and blue baseball caps embossed with “World War II Veteran” across the front, the airport of busy travelers suddenly came to an abrupt stop.
There is something universally emotional about seeing veterans making a difficult trek to visit a memorial honoring those they served alongside yet didn’t return.
As the group continued to pass through, each veteran with a volunteer escort to help push their wheelchair or offer an arm for stability, emotions swelled in nearly everyone. Travelers reached out to shake hands of those able while others thanked the men for their service and sacrifices. Tears could be found on both sides of the aisle as I witnessed 90-year old men dab their eyes as people approached them or called to them across the room.
And is human nature, I couldn’t help but feel my own body emotionally react to situation — my throat swelling up and tears searching for an exit.
Sometimes it takes a moment like this to remind us what is really important in life.
Only hours before I’d visited the very memorial these men were traveling towards. While I offered my thanks and a prayer for those who gave so much, nothing compares to what I saw in the eyes of these men navigating through the airport. Most were quiet and almost uncomfortable at the attention — probably thinking inside they were the lucky ones. This was not a pleasure trip but more of a trek to humbly visit a piece of real estate set aside to honor those they’d served alongside.
As I made my way to my gate, the procession continued through a small collection of restaurants. All along the way I witnessed not only respect, but genuine love being passed from one generation to another as the group made their way though the crowd of travelers.
Airports, by nature, are rather impersonal. People are racing from gate to gate, checking their phones for email, and living a solitary existence among thousands of strangers. One traveler may look at another, but there is no personal connection – or desire to do so. We strive to be invisible and want it that way.
But it is just this factor that makes the experience of traveler’s lives being interrupted by veterans passing through to pay their respects so incredibly powerful. As if being suddenly awakened from a deep slumber, people’s faces came to life as travelers reached out to pat a veteran on the shoulder or simply share a few kind words.
Today the term ‘hero’ is attached to sports figures, entertainers, or even someone staring on a reality television show. But on this morning, after seeing this group of veterans on the receiving end of so much love and respect, I can’t help but reminded of how much veterans truly evoke emotions reserved for only the very few.