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Tuesday, May 09, 2006

I MET A HERO

This past Saturday, I spent a beautiful Spring day at our local Boy Scout Reservation, Camp Mitigwa, near Boone Iowa.

As a volunteer with the Scouts since my transfer to Iowa in 1988, I can honestly say that some of the best days I have experienced as a parent and grandparent have been at Scout Camp. This day was no exception.

The Scouts were holding an open house at the camp, with tours and displays showing all of the activities and areas available to Scouts and their families. This particular event was aimed primarily at the families of Cub Scout aged boys, and the tours were set up accordingly. The reproduction of Lewis and Clarks Fort Clatsop featured pan fried bread for the attendees to sample, and examples of the equipment and clothing used by that expedition for them to try. The blockhouse at Fort Madison fired its cannon every hour. Bug juice and snacks were available at each station, so the children would stay hydrated and energetic during their walk through the extended forest areas. As with all Scout activities, especially Cub Scout events, this was for the entire family, and families are who attended.

My participation was to set up a model campsite, complete with tents, cots, sleeping bags, and the attendant equipment necessary for an outdoor weekend. As part of the demonstration, I laid a small fire in the fire ring, and had long camp forks for the youngsters to make Smores. Marshmallows, chocolate and graham crackers are a staple of Scouting, as Smores are the preferred nighttime snack for Scouts of all ages. It was great fun helping the younger visitors make this all American staple, and especially so when I saw 8 year old “big” brothers making a Smore for their younger sisters, and equally “big” sisters helping their younger siblings. Some of the parents had never had one before, and were amazed that their children seemed to instinctively know how to create this treat. We even had an eighty year old grandmother try her first ever Smore, proudly made by her 7 year old grandson.

Among the visitors this day was a young man, in his late twenties, accompanied by his 7 year old son, and 5 year old daughter. There was a lull in my site at the time, so I had a chance to visit with him longer that most. He had the usual questions about Scouting, including training for volunteers. As we talked, it became obvious from his demeanor and appearance that he was either in the military, or had been until recently. The buzz cut, physical fitness and erect posture were certainly clues, but his continually calling me sir was the clincher.

I asked him what branch of the service he was in. When he replied that he had just finished seven years in the Air Force, I simply said the first thing that popped into my head, and that was “Thank You”. He was a bit surprised at that, and so I explained that I appreciated his service to our country, and that we don’t say thank you nearly as often as we should. I asked about the areas he had served in, as my youngest son is also in the Air Force, and I was curious if they had perhaps crossed paths.

It was my turn to be surprised when he said that he had just completed his second tour in Iraq. He looked toward the campfire, where his son was making a second Smore for his younger sister. His voice dropped a bit, and he said in a matter of fact voice that he had returned safely and unharmed, but his marriage had not survived his second tour. As a newly single parent, he wanted to find activities for his children that would help them grow, and provide some diversions when he was not available. That piqued my curiosity, and so I asked what his plans were now that his Air Force enlistment was ending.

He replied that he had transferred to the Army, and had been accepted into Officer Candidate School. After he completes OCS, he will begin his training as a combat helicopter pilot. Officers pay, together with flight bonus, would enable him to afford the child care and education that he wanted to provide for his children. In a quiet and unassuming voice, this young man, father of two children, had brought home just how remarkable are the men and women who serve this nation of ours.

The life they have chosen is one that requires them to sacrifice many of the everyday things we take for granted. Parents in the military give up precious time with their children and spouses, missing many of the activities so much a part of our lives. The risk of injury or worse puts a strain on their extended families, which in turn adds to their own pressures. Loneliness, boredom, worry, fatigue, frustration and heartbreak are things experienced by all of us, but not to the degree and frequency of those who serve in the military. And yet, they not only serve, but do so willingly, and with a determination that most of us would be unable to sustain.

I am very glad to have met this young man, for he helped to remind me of the dedication of this small number of remarkable individuals, without whom we would not be able to experience the every day pleasures of normal lives. He also reminded me that every man and woman serving in any branch of the military is indeed a hero, whether they are in harms way or not. If not for what they do, we could not be who we choose. And a simple “Thank You”, although it seems inadequate, is less than some often get.

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