This spring, my stepfather, Ron, was called to serve another tour of duty in Iraq, where he serves with a team of other medical personnel on an Army base there.
Last weekend, he was issued a welcome two-week leave. After allowing a few days for my mom and Ron to enjoy his arrival home, I joined them for lunch today. In earlier posts, I talked about the enormous effect that even small kindnesses can have, and about redefining humility as a strength. During my visit today, Ron shared with me a wonderful illustration of both.
This tour had been different. On past missions, the hospital workers were quite safe, never really seeing any combat situations or danger. This time — not so. The base had been fired upon by enemy mortars and rockets. Not once, but several times. Just a few weeks back, they’d had less than a minute’s warning to scurry for the relative safety of the bunkers before the strike began. The nearest missile landed directly between the two bunkers — mere meters from both doors, and only seconds after those doors had closed with the last man inside. This type of assault is something they must be prepared for daily this time around. Every hour. Every minute. Awake or asleep.
I’m imagining that sleep isn’t too sound.
Well, the leave was issued, and Ron was all too happy to begin enjoying his brief reprieve from war. But as you might imagine, his return home from the Middle East involved a series of long flights — all made while still wearing his full Army-issued regulation uniform. The last leg of the arduous trip was from Atlanta to Boston.
I’d like to tell you that the Army spares no expense for soldiers. Not so. Wearily, my stepfather made his way back to find his seat in coach and settle in.
Suddenly, a man approached him in the aisle. “Sir, please — take my seat,” he said, holding out his boarding pass and gesturing toward the front of the plane. The boarding pass denoted a comfortable seat in first-class. Ron gently protested. But with the crowded aisle backing up, and seeing that the man would not be refused, Ron accepted. A bit overwhelmed and extremely honored, Ron thanked the man profusely and made his way forward, while the stranger happily took his place in the cramped coach seat at the back.
Recall my claim from the post “of cheesecake and choice” : that humility is a strength and not a weakness. It is knowing full well one’s rights, and foregoing them for the benefit of another, simply for the joy of doing so. This stranger had paid — and paid handsomely — for a first-class seat on the plane. It was his right to claim it. And certainly no one would have thought a moment’s ill of him for enjoying the luxury he’d purchased with his own money. Yet he willingly gave it up in an act of kindness and honor, and perhaps appreciation for the service of an unknown soldier.
Ron enjoyed comfort and leg room, a fine lunch, and a gin and tonic in his unexpected first-class seat. Hours later, on the ground in Boston, he stopped the gentleman as he exited the plane. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your generosity,” Ron said sincerely. “I want you to have something. Please take it.” Ron held out his hand. In it, he had a limited-edition collector’s coin he’d purchased in Iraq, one commemorating the soldiers of Operation New Dawn.
The roles now reversed, the kind stranger tried to refuse, but Ron insisted. Two men performing a ritual of honor. Understanding, the man smiled and graciously received the gift. They shook hands warmly and said their goodbyes with one more round of thanks, then headed off their separate ways into the terminal.
What a remarkable tribute to moving past the “me” mentality, to seeing and appreciating others as real and valuable people, and to the power of unrestrained kindness and humility.