"Excuse me, ma'am," he offered as he nodded toward the window. I didn't notice until I stood to let him pass and he tucked into the seat next to me. The lower half of his leg built by cosmesis rather than what he was given at birth. He wore his standard issue fatigues but the pant leg on one side revealed an artificial limb. His persona seemed old soul. And the fatigues and limb would lend an older, more seasoned appearance than his face ever could. He didn't look old enough to buy cigarettes.
We were flying to Seattle from Atlanta. He had recently returned to the US from a third consecutive tour in Iraq. This time, with a permanent injury coupled with an honorable discharge. As we shared a conversation, I was astounded at the level of calm and ease he used to talk about the real-life scenarios that seemed brutal and surreal to me. When he revealed he had just turned 22, I sensed the formidable sadness in his voice that his "career" as he hoped it would develop, was terminated.
It wasn't the loss of part of his body that disenchanted him, but that commitment to the Armed Forces had been prematurely disrupted. His willingness to serve, to stand, to sacrifice could no longer be engaged by the United States Military.
I asked him how he maintained not only the enthusiasm to rise to be assiduous every day in such an extreme environment, but also the belief that the war was the right action in the grim and very real face of death. He said everyone doesn't. War and the caustic realizations of what it truly means is not the same as reading about it in the news. But he felt he had no alternative. Once you enlist, you are committed for life. He followed with, "Or until you have no choice," indicating his leg.
I certainly could not compare notes or offer anecdotes about "I know how you feel." My greatest imagination could not conjure up what a single and real day in that environment would be like.
"How do you feel about returning home?" I asked.
He was contemplative before answering, "A little lost."
Death could have taken him. Another name on a long roster that goes beyond this war into every corner of every country. While he did sacrifice a limb, he certainly never forfeited his valor, or his ambition. And hopefully that ambition would become bigger, and broader to help him navigate his way. A way beyond feeling irrevocably displaced.
In baggage claim at SeaTac, I saw her before she saw him. The face washed with what only comes from holding your breath for three tours of duty. The look of impatience and searching superimposed over a very real foundation of frantic. She could only be at peace perhaps when she could see him, and hug him with her own arms. When she saw him, she pulled on the arm of the man with her. He couldn't get to the boy fast enough. His son.
When he introduced me, I saw in his parents the awe of having their child back. They were proud. And they were relieved. And the force of it made me relieved for them. A force I would not even begin to appreciate in some microcosmic way until I had a child of my own.
Tomorrow is Veteran's Day in the US. Originally called Armistice Day in 1919, the day intended to recognize WWI vets. The holiday changed to "All Veterans" in 1945. And this holiday is pertinent to almost 30 million veterans in the United States. I have my own opinions about war, and its cost. But the freedom that affords me to have and vocalize such opinions was freedom paid for by people willing to go to war. And I have gratitude for that gift.
At 22, Corporal Foster was the youngest veteran I had ever met. Wherever you are, I hope you are finding your way.