I watched them walk through the airport terminal toward us, as we waited to assist them. They didn’t come roaring through, in a whirlwind of dust. Instead, they came drifting in casually, two or three at a time, like a weary group of tourists who’ve been on a bus all day.
Some were with their spouses, their sisters, their girlfriends. Others were traveling alone. A few were in wheelchairs or on crutches. A number of them wore fatigues, Army jackets, or Marine Corps caps. Nearly all of them had a prosthetic leg…or two. Or a prosthetic arm…or two. They came forward proudly, with smiles on their faces. The faces of today’s wounded veterans from America’s War on Terror. Smiles and all.
As they’ve done for the past four years, the Wounded Warrior Project had brought together this group of disabled veterans to ski the slopes of New Hampshire. Their program, known as the Wounded Warriors Disabled Sports Project, was designed not only as a fun event, but as a therapeutic event for wounded veterans to rebuild confidence in themselves as they adapt to a new way of life, one that only those who live with missing limbs, spinal disabilities, or brain injuries can truly comprehend. That project was the newsy side of this story. It made the newspapers and the evening news and that is all great stuff.
But when these veterans left New Hampshire via Manchester Airport that day, those of us TSA officers who had been assigned to help them through the checkpoint learned firsthand the true meaning of courage. And that meaning goes way beyond the evening news. And it’s where my story begins.
TSA’s mission is to ensure that the terrorist events of September 11, 2001, which began with the hijacking of U.S. commercial aircraft, never happen again. This requires that we remain constantly alert and consistent in our approach, as we balance the need to spot and neutralize potential threats, with the desire to treat our traveling public with dignity and respect. At Manchester Airport, we pride ourselves on doing both exceptionally well – and we’ve had ample praise for our skills and dedication from a significant number of passengers.
So when these war veterans came through our checkpoint that day, we were obliged to treat them as we would any other passenger. Yet we were wondering – just a little – how we would do that. It isn’t every day that we get the opportunity to assist those who bear the scars of a messy war. And even those of us who were military veterans ourselves thought it might be just a wee bit awkward for both us and them.
But we were put at ease by these young vets who have, no doubt, experienced this before – and who obviously wanted nothing more than to just be treated like anyone else. That made our job easier, but there were still a number of times during the process when one or another of us became choked up or lost for words. Not out of sympathy, but out of pride for the way these young men and women conducted themselves and, at least outwardly, treated their injuries as no big deal. Their courage had not come cheaply for them.
Now prosthetic devices – artificial arms, legs, etc. contain a lot of metal. And that metal does a wonderful job of setting off the metal detector at any airport checkpoint. So the bulk of our interaction with these young veterans was patting them down. My first passenger was a Marine, who had lost a leg and sustained a head injury in Iraq. We had a great conversation about the Corps, as I told him of my son’s upcoming graduation from ROTC. With some difficulty, he asked if my son had been through OCS (Officer Candidate School) yet. I said yes, and told me he had been there. I believe he had been an instructor. But he was heading back home now, to somewhere in Virginia. We shook hands and I thanked him, as he gathered his bags and wandered into the airport, a slight grin on his face. No big deal…
One of my fellow TSA officers, a Marine Corps veteran himself, had to pat down another Marine with a prosthetic leg and other obvious injuries. The officer became very emotional in the process and the wounded veteran just put his hand on this shoulder and whispered “It’s alright. You did it for me when you served and I did it for you now.” They shook hands and he walked away.
I assisted a young man in a wheelchair. He had no left leg, half a right leg, and no left arm. He told me a bit about his skiing adventures in New Hampshire. We shared a laugh, at his wife’s expense. She had sprained her ankle while they were skiing, so she found herself in a wheelchair that day too. He gave me a big smile and said she was looking for the sympathy vote. She smiled back and rolled her eyes. I shook both their hands and they wheeled themselves down the hall.
I patted down a young man who proudly walked right through the metal detector, as straight as an arrow – and immediately set that alarm to ringing. So I had to use the hand-held metal detector on him. We chatted a bit, as I traced the wand over his body, and he apologized when every inch of his chest set off the hand-held alarm too. That was from all the shrapnel, he explained. His prosthetic leg rang as well. He told me, matter-of-factly, about the roadside IED that his Hummer had hit, two years ago in Iraq. He said the people at Walter Reed Hospital had been really great to him, despite what we might have read in the newspapers. He then shook my hand…and thanked me. No big deal…
I had to test the prosthetic leg of another young soldier, who rolled up his pants leg and proudly showed me the picture of his girlfriend which he had had painted on the upper part of the prosthetic. She admitted that she was a little shy about the picture, but not this soldier. He was as proud as hell of his ”sweetie”. “We’re getting married soon,” he told me, with a slight Southern twang. I gave him a thumbs-up and he said “Thank you, sir,” as his sweetie helped him down the hall.
At one point, I had a little trouble testing another young man’s leg. So he obliged me, by grabbing the ankle on his prosthetic leg and turning it around 90 degrees. “That better?” he asked. I looked at him, grinned, and shook my head. “Hope you didn’t try skiing with your foot pointed in that direction,” I said. He just laughed and said “No sir. I’m better than that!” And he clicked the metal ankle back in place and picked up his crutches. No big deal, right?
A young lady in a wheelchair darted past me, but stopped so her sister could load her down with their carry-on luggage. She was wearing Army fatigues and a big smile and said “I’m the packhorse, I guess.” Her legs were tightly strapped into the wheelchair and I got the impression that she wouldn’t be walking anytime soon. “It was fun skiing here,” she said. “You have a beautiful state.” I wished her well, but had to bite my lip to contain myself.
And then they were gone. Off to catch their flights and scatter across the country. Some would return to their homes; others to rehab facilities, hospitals, and clinics. Just a group of newly-minted veterans, coping bravely with the raw deal that life – and war – had dealt them. But it’s no big deal, right? Huh?
May God bless those who sacrifice their own futures for our country. We owe you so much more…because to us, it really is a big deal.
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