My daughter Alexa's favorite movie is the Disney classic "Peter Pan." Not yet four years old, she delights in the fanciful tale set in "Neverland" and populated by mermaids, pirates, Indians and, of course, Peter Pan. She and I have watched it together at least a dozen times. She'd never seen a movie in an actual theater yet, so I recently decided to take her.
We'd gone to an early matinee, and emerged hungry for lunch. Making our way to a nearby shopping center, I noticed two Vietnam veterans outside, flanking either side of the entrance.
The familiar refrains of the national anthem were blaring from a boom box on the sidewalk, and each held a cup half-filled with miniature American flags. Both were wheelchair-bound, one with bruised purple stumps dangling from the chair; the other's wounds not so obvious. They bore the shaggy look that a lot of Vietnam veterans adopted in the sixties and seventies.
I fished a $5 bill from my pocket and handed it to Alexa as we approached, and told her to ask politely for a flag. "Any donation is appreciated," he said to me, and handed Alexa a flag. She promptly went into a ballerina-style spin, twirling the flag above her head. "I love to watch the children," he said softly, casting his knowing gaze on her.
Before she could prance away, I pulled her to my side, and knelt beside his wheelchair.
"Alexa, did you know that this man was a soldier? He went to a very dangerous place, so that our country could be safe." Her big, brown eyes turned deadly serious, and I felt a wave of emotion roll over me, my stomach doing flips.
Unfortunate déjà vu
I thought of all the bulletins that have crossed out of Afghanistan and Iraq: "Three U.S. soldiers killed by a roadside bomb," “Eleven dead in a chopper crash," and on and on — tallying what Lincoln famously described as "the terrible arithmetic" of war.
I thought of all the fresh-faced mug shots of the dead and wounded men and women — hell, kids, posted on our television sets, in our newspapers, and on web sitesacross the country.
I thought of the countless grieving family members we've seen and heard from — some chin-up and accepting of the ultimate sacrifice made by their loved ones, others outwardly bitter and angry.
And I thought, we've seen this all before.
My voice choking, I said to my daughter, "Why don't we say thank you to this man?" And we did. Fearing my emotions would then get the better of me, I took her hand and walked inside.
The spell cast by our first outing to the movies together had been broken, and in its place was something I hoped would last much longer — a deeper appreciation for the sacrifices made by our men and women in uniform.
A hit in the gut
Shame on me, I thought. My job puts me in a position where I have reams of information at my disposable on what's happening in Iraq. We're rapidly closing in on an unfortunate casualty figure since 9/11, when we'll have lost more American lives fighting since the attack than we did on the day itself. Talk about terrible arithmetic.
My father-in-law is a Vietnam veteran very active in veteran’s affairs. And yet only now had it really hit home. Only now, as I watched shoppers stroll comfortably in the air-conditioning, did it hit me in the gut.
Just then my wife, Anna, and our one year-old son Luke showed up at our appointed rendezvous point. We ate lunch at a pizza parlor. We laughed. We shopped. We enjoyed our freedom.
As we left the shopping center, one of the veterans had momentarily given up his position and was rolling his chair across the way, re-supplying his buddy with some additional flags. Still watching each other’s backs after all these years, I said to myself.
And then I wondered about all the men and women who have come home with limbs missing, with the psychological scars war inevitably brings. We see them now, sweating in a Walter Reed rehab room. Running on their space-age titanium prosthetics, and biking across the country to raise money — reminding us at every turn of the spirit that drives this country.
But where will they be in 35 years, when youth has abandoned them and war is a distant memory for much of the country?
I gave them a silent salute as I walked past, cradling my son in my other arm. My daughter Alexa skipped past, still clutching the flag in her hand.
Hoping to remember
Later that night, after I'd read her stories and "lights out," we whispered conspiratorially to each other in the dark of her room. I have few memories prior to age four, and I often remind her, in those magic moments between parent and child, to remember special days and events.
"Alexa, remember the man we met today who gave you the American flag? The soldier?"
"Yes, Daddy," she said.