Saturday in southeast Iowa was a very joyous affair. People flocked to line roads decorated with balloons, signs and ribbons only to later cram auditoriums and other public spaces. Smiles, laughter, tears and hugging were the currency of the day as our sons and daughters of the Iowa 224th Engineers came home from Iraq.
I had planned to join in on the celebration to express my gratitude for these people who fought on my behalf even if I disagreed with the reasons our commander in chief sent them to Iraq. They were doing their job, laying their lives of the line and because they like me, were fiercely patriotic towards their country. But with my impending trip to the Philippines, the only time that I could make it to the bank was during their homecoming.
I looked for their buses as we drove the twenty miles to the neighboring larger town where we bank but our timing was off and our paths didn’t cross. My wife and I did our banking and shopped for a few odds and ends before wrapping up and getting ready to head home. It was now almost one and we decided to grab a late lunch at the local Applebee's before driving home. It is always full but today it seemed especially full for that late on a Saturday and upon stepping inside the restaurant I saw why. There were perhaps a dozen soldiers and their families in their celebrating their return along with the normal crowd.
We had to wait a few minutes before being seated but for once I did not mind. As we waited, I contented myself to watching the families catching up on each others lives and never once taking their eyes off their children in uniform. I was living the happiness of others vicariously and it was rubbing off on me. By coincidence, a table for us opened up right next to a family of four, a mother, father, daughter and son who was dressed in his desert fatigues and boots. While we ordered and waited for our food, I couldn’t help but secretly glance at the family.
The son seemed only a child and much too young to be fighting in wars but yet there he was back from fighting one during the last year and a half. The parents were excited and like everyone else, couldn’t keep their eyes off their son, which gave me plenty of opportunity to watch them. Their clothes were thread bare and a little ragged in places and by their demeanor, I could see that they probably fairly poor. This part of Iowa is not a wealthy place and these fine folks seemed like they were on the bottom end of the financial ladder. Yet their son was back and they were taking him out to eat at one of the more expensive places to eat in town in celebration. Money was not a concern today as they lived in the currency of togetherness and being a family once again.
While the waitress was distracting the family, I quickly ceased the opportunity and asked my wife is she would allow me to do a good deed. She instantly knew what I wanted to do and gave me permission. I excused myself telling her I needed to visit the restroom and walked back towards the cashiers. The waitress was ringing up the bill for the family and I politely asked her if she could ring it up on my credit card instead and give the money back to the family. She instantly knew why I wanted to do this and accepted my card. I asked her to just tell the family thanks and that I wished to remain anonymous. I asked her to just bring the receipt to sign with my bill later after the family had left.
Sometimes, well-intentioned plans don’t go off exactly as planned and as I walked back to my seat after visiting the restrooms, I could see the waitress talking to the family and then pointing in my direction as I sat down to resume my meal. She handed me the receipt and walked off. I was instantly hoping that this family wouldn’t take this act of charity the wrong way but the father looked into my eyes from across the aisle and said thanks to which I replied, “No, thank you.” We both went back to our meals and I was happy to know that everything was going to work out after all.
As the family finished their drinks and stood up from the table, the father again came over to shake my hand and tell me thanks. His son, the soldier also came over to thank me. I shook the sons hand and told him thanks for serving his country and I told him sincerely that I was happy he was back home. I told the family to have a happy holiday season as a whole family. I fought hard to retain my composure as tears of gratitude started to well up in my eyes and fortunately they didn’t dwell long and headed outside.
As we finished up our lunch, I couldn’t help but feel blessed. My wife and I both have good jobs, a new child on the way, a nice home and everything we could ask for. This family didn’t have as much and yet they allowed their son to fight for our country which allowed us the right to live our lives with the freedoms we possessed. Whether the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, or any war for whatever the reason, these brave men and women joined the military for one reason, to serve their country. For that, I am thankful.