Our flight to Philadelphia was delayed for three hours, so I spent a lot of time on Friday looking at people. I saw a lot of military uniforms of every kind: Marines in dress blues, Army enlisted men in light tan camos and stylish rucksacks, infantry sergeants with braids and stars. My wife comes from a military family, and given my conservative and hawkish nature, I was inclined to look upon these men and consider them heroes. But every time I did look at them, the only word that came to mind was "youth." They were all, every single one of them, so young that I almost hesitated to call them men. Not a gray hair among them, and most of them no more than teenagers. You hear the generals in war movies talk about "our boys," and I used to think that it was just a figure of speech; now I see it as literal truth.
The only thing that made them seem different from boys was their seriousness. They did not smile or laugh. Some stood erect and quiet, as if awaiting orders. Most sat hunched over, iPods in their ears, pecking away grimly on cell phones. Maybe music and games were just acceptable tranquilizers, the usual means of tuning out thoughts and dulling pain in the face of long boredom and stress.
A USO volunteer had a little table set up in the middle of one terminal, with a big banner with some good wish for the military personnel. "Until everyone comes home," it said. The young woman stopped anyone in military dress and shook their hands. The men would smile shyly, nod, and walk on. No one was effusive, but neither were they dismissive. It seemed like something was going on in those little greetings. I wish I could know what they were thinking. Perhaps it was relief: "Thank God there are still civilians who know there is a war going on." Or maybe it was rueful: "Lady, you have no idea what I have seen." I was touched, somehow, by this tiny display, so conspicuous in its simplicity. A human being was reaching out to these young boys with the experiences of men, not lauding them or praising them, but simply touching them, as if to say, "You belong here. You are still one of us." I think, perhaps, they really needed it.