I’m proud to serve as a public affairs officer in the Missouri Air National Guard, and experienced the following during my recent annual tour of duty in 2014.
It’s 6:15 p.m. at the Wal-Mart in the small central Missouri town of Warrensburg. Aisle 17, Health and Beauty. A woman pushes her cart toward me; in the seat, a young child – perhaps her grandson – squirms; he’s had his fill of shopping. The woman tries to catch my eye. When she does, she smiles and says, “Thank you. Thank you for serving our country, Soldier.”
I smile back, a bit embarrassed and maybe a little ashamed, before replying with an obligatory, “You’re welcome.”
You see, she doesn’t know that I’m a new Guardsman; I’ve only been back in the uniform for about a year. I’ve never deployed in it, haven’t yet pulled state emergency duty in it. I drive across the state, train and go home. I work hard, but most of the time it doesn’t feel like I’m serving my country or my state.
Being in the Guard, the minimum standard calls us to wear the uniform one weekend per month, and two weeks per year. My identity, therefore, is more often associated with my day-to-day job than it is with this part-time job.
And right now, my co-workers back home are carrying my load while I serve.
And of course I’m not a Soldier, I’m an Airman, but that doesn’t matter – camouflage makes everyone look like a Soldier. I’ve learned that Soldier is simply short-hand for Servicemember.
These are the thoughts that cross my mind as I accept what feels like unwarranted gratitude. She doesn’t see that I don’t necessarily feel like the well-starched, “capital-A” Airman that she sees before her in Aisle 17.
But maybe she does. Maybe she correctly sees me as I am.
Maybe she has a nephew or a daughter serving in uniform. Maybe right now, while talking to me in the Wal-Mart, she’s worried about a husband deployed to Afghanistan, doing a job that I might find myself doing in only a few months.
Maybe her home was once spared from a flood by thousands of sandbags stacked by others who also wear my uniform.
Or maybe she has a more abstract understanding of that uniform; an abstract appreciation for the value the uniform represents. Maybe for her it represents security and freedom – rights that Americans enjoy and that we strive to provide to others around the world.
I honestly don’t know why she stopped to say thank you. That probably doesn’t matter, though. I would do my job with integrity, excellence and service, with or without a thank you in Aisle 17. To do so is simply my duty as an American Airman serving in uniform in the Air National Guard. It’s the standard we all keep.
But the thank you is rejuvenating, like a big bottle of SportzAid on Aisle 12. It’s a fuel booster in my tank from the Automotive Department. It will help propel me forward, and will help me to do it with good cheer.
Ma’am, wherever you are right now, you are quite welcome. And in turn, to you and to all American citizens, co-workers and community members who loyally and unflinchingly support our nation’s Citizen Airmen and Soldiers serving in uniform at home and abroad:
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