U.S. flags lined up in green grass
Introspection Society and Culture

A decade later: A young soldier says goodbye

November 11, 2019

This post originally appeared in my weekly newspaper column in the Lewistown News-Argus and the Sidney (Mont.) Herald on July 4, 2009. This was before Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter. This was before we debated the virtue of taking a knee, before teenagers were organizing national school walkouts in support of gun control, before presidents used Twitter.

It seems my son’s questions over the past decade have only gotten harder to answer. But the sacrifice of those who serve our nation and communities remains the same, will always remain the same. On this Veterans Day, I honor all those who sacrifice so much for the luxury of freedom that I so often take for granted.

soldiers loading onto plane

Originally published July 4, 2009

Last weekend I was at the airport…

…taking a flight I wasn’t looking forward to, feeling tired and hungry at 6:30 a.m. without breakfast.  As I waited in line at security, I noticed a family saying their goodbyes. 

A young soldier was leaving. 

I stood up straight and stopped worrying about my empty stomach.  If he could make his trip, certainly I could make mine.

Maybe I’m just getting old, but the kid looked like, well… a kid.  He is a man, obviously, qualified to fight for his country, to die for me and for you.  He has a pretty young wife, and a brand new baby.  He has parents that are both proud and terrified.

But wow, he looked young. 

He was about to take off and go somewhere far away.  Away from his wife, his baby, his parents, and everything that is familiar.  He is going to shoot at things, maybe even people.  I pictured a bigger version of my toddler son in that uniform, and my heart hurt.

Despite my best efforts to shelter him from certain realities, my son has learned about guns, bad guys, police, and army guys.  He is fascinated.  He has determined that bad guys have guns, but he can’t quite reconcile in his mind why police and army guys have guns, too, but they are the good guys. 

I explained to him that police and army guys have guns to keep us safe.  He thought about it for a minute, then asked, “Who do they shoot with their guns?” 

“Hopefully nobody,” I answered.  I knew this was a lame diversionary tactic, and I knew it wouldn’t work.

“Who do they shoot with their guns?” he asked again. 

Ah, the persistence of a toddler. 

Fortunately for me, he answered his own question.  “They shoot the bad guys,” he said, nodding with satisfaction. 

An hour later, he put down the toy he was playing with and looked up at the ceiling in deep thought.  “Guns are dangerous?” he asked. 

“Yes, very,” I said.

He nodded thoughtfully.  “How do army guys’ guns keep me safe?” 

I had no answer.  If we were all as wise as toddlers, the world would be a better place. 

My son’s confusion is absolutely justified. 

It doesn’t make any sense. How do guns keep us safe?  I don’t know.  Somebody shoots somebody else, and there’s a bad guy and a good guy, and who’s who depends on whose side you’re on. 

I don’t know how to answer all my son’s questions.  But I do know that I will teach my son to take his hat off and put his right hand on his heart when he hears the National Anthem. 

I know I’ll teach him that you never let the American flag touch the ground.  And I’ll teach him that army guys are the good guys. 

That young man in the airport didn’t declare war on anybody else. 

When he made the decision to put on that uniform, to leave his wife and baby behind to travel to some far-off place, he was doing it because he wants to be one of the good guys.  He wants to keep his family safe.  He wants to keep my family safe, and yours. 

He made the decision to become a soldier for me, and all the other millions of Americans who can’t answer my son’s question.  He shoots at people who shoot at him, so that I don’t have to.  And for that, I am grateful.

Copyright © 2019 Sara Beth Wald

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