by Mark Scheinbaum
American Reporter Correspondent
Jan 31, 2007
WHEN JOHNNY GOES MARCHING OFF, AGAIN
ATLANTA-HARTSFIELD AIRPORT, Jan. 31, 2007 -- I suppose George Washington bit his lips from the cold and emotion and watched them head across the Delaware to Trenton.
Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower patrolled the lines waiting to embark on D-Day and returned their salutes.
I surveyed the young men going to war somewhere between Arby's and Panda Express on Concourse E at the Atlanta-Hartsfield Airport.
How many will not return? How many are going back for tour number two or three? How does the average American who does not now, nor ever has, known an immediate family member in the military gaze into their eyes? Basically, they don't.
It's not post-Vietnam disdain, but it certainly is not the ticker-tape euphoria of Gulf War I at the airport. I fought back a wave of sad emotion and tried to figure out the best way to describe to you how the vast bulk of pedestrians in the Concourse viewed the hundreds of troops from Fort Hood, Tex., and Colorado Springs, Colo., heading back to Iraq.
The image came to me from earlier in the day in a crowded hotel elevator in Albuquerque when a young man in a wheelchair rolled into the elevator. I smiled, we exchanged a nod and said good morning to each other. The others in the elevator stared at their shoes, their fingernails, the walls, the numbers above the door - at everything but the legless young man.
It's a long story, but one of my sons has made this trip to a war, and another son to a war which was sort of canceled and became a UN peacekeeping action. I often wondered about the scene around them when they called mom and dad from an airport.
In Atlanta I saw and heard little camaraderie and little chatter. Perhaps 700 young men each in their own "zone" occupied the seats at several gates and in the food court.
A few slept in almost quiet corners.
A few used cell phones for hushed whispers to girls left behind.
A few used or waited for pay phones to say their good-byes.
Perhaps two or three dozen soldiers sat on the floor with laptop computers, wireless or tethered to a battery charging electric outlet behind them on the wall, all clattering out the emails before their flights overseas.
The overall impression was each individual in a cocoon of thought, sadness, and privacy. Perhaps not fear per se, but a pervasive blankness about the end of a joyous leave or R&R with those they love.
The Atlanta airport had placed a gleaming black baby grand in the Food Court, and a salt and pepper haired pianist picked out ¨Music of the Night¨and the rest of the score of ¨The Phantom.¨ Like so many nights in so many gin mills, the travelers mostly ignored him.
The total number of American fighting men lingering near the piano or watching his fingers on the keyboard was zero. I guess Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber is not big in Baghdad.
As the home of Cable News Network, CNN kiosks in the Atlanta newsstands and waiting areas had double-decker televisions with both CNN and CNN Headline News. At one point the top screen had CNN reporting the death of fanatical doomsday insurgents killed in Najaf, while CNN's Wolf Blitzer on the other screen interviewed some talking head about U.S. troop deployments.
The total number of American soldiers who stopped to watch these reports? Zero.
Ipods? Yes. mp3 players, games and DVD players, for sure. Sitting quietly dozing off or deep in thought, lots of guys. Reading newspapers or news magazines, none, as in zero.
If you are waiting for those real or urban legendary emails about the passengers who rushed to ticket counters to offer first class seats to troops or stood up and clapped as troops walked by, well, Atlanta must be the wrong airport. One wife was heard asking her husband if one could tell a Marine from an Army soldier by the shade and pattern of the desert uniform. Most passengers just rushed to their gates.
He was perhaops 19 years of age, maybe 20, and in front of me on the Arby's line, giving his order. He reached for his wallet and I touched his cammo sleave and uttered the lame line: "Your money's no good here, soldier. My son just got back from Iraq, and dinner's on me.¨ He smiled and said, ¨Wow, thanks a lot¨and I cleared my guilt about not doing more for veterans and active duty troops by spending another lousy six or seven bucks.
The strap from his rucksack blocked his name patch, I could only see ¨"UEZ" for perhaps Rodriguez? Dominguez? He was tall, thin, with black hair, black plastic framed glasses, snow white skin, and a rosey cheek that had not yet made any dough for Mr. Gillette. My sons had drummed into me the classified constraints of war in what they call OPSEC, so I knew better than to ask the private's name, destination, or assignment, and just asked where he was from.
¨Don't forget to try to email your mom every day," the dad in me said, noticing no wedding ring on his hand. "It's corny but the families really don't understand it when they go a few days without hearing from you. Keep the family happy."
He raised his eyebrow and with a sarcastic grin said, " You really do sound just like my mom."
My final soul-searching question looking around the Food Court, was whether or not they had Arby's, McDonald's and Burger King for the troops in Iraq?
"Ummm," he thought, "I guess all I've ever come across was Pizza Hut."
He thanked me again for the gourmet meal, we shook hands and went our separate ways.
My overseas flight featured a movie starring Toby Keith about a small town which loses five of its soldier-sons in one training accident. Keith had entertained my son and his guys in Mosul, lingered to schmooze with the troops, and always downplayed his five or six trips to the war zone.
I thought about the people on the boarding line around me with their Canadian, Argentine, Dutch, and Ecuadorian passports, and noticed that just like most of the Americans they managed not to notice the guys in uniform. Sort of wallpaper, or statues, or baggage carts.
There's no way of knowing how many of the guys will not make it back to a U.S. airport. The whole experience was surreal, as if I was invading the sacred, private moments of fine, brave young men (and a few women) who need some quiet "downtime" before their flight to another universe.
Yet, I couldn't shake the feeling that in 2007, the thoughts of most Americans walking by might as well have been a million miles away. Perhaps - just for a moment - they should have been with the guys whose own thoughts were 8,000 miles away.