Thursday, November 10, 2011

An American Hero, an American Tragedy

I am called to a strange ministry. Whenever I fly, I know that at some point, someone who needs to talk about something painful will sit down next to me. We’ll exchange pleasantries, I’ll open my book or start working on my laptop, and that person will begin to talk. And talk. And talk.

I’m not complaining. I really do see my airline role as a calling. I’ve counseled people to work on their marriages, talked teens into giving their parents a second chance, advised people on difficult life decisions. Today, on the flight from Salt Lake City to Chicago, the doors were ready to close when a young family made their way down the aisle. The father was unshaven, clad in a filthy jacket and torn jeans. The mother was visibly pregnant and exhausted. The three year old daughter, still in her Disney Princess pajamas, was crying. “I hate this fucking airline,” the young man muttered, looking for help, ANY help, and not finding any as passenger after passenger refused to meet his eyes.

There was, proverbially, no room in the inn. No one was willing to give up a seat so the family could sit together. At last, one woman reluctantly relinquished her window seat and moved to a middle one so the mother and daughter could be together two rows ahead of me. But the smug young man on the aisle refused to give up his seat to the father, who ended up in the middle seat beside me.

I made some conciliatory welcoming comment about what a cute daughter he had, and how frustrating it must be to not be able to sit with his family. I asked him where they were headed. His eyes welled up with tears. “My sister was just killed in Afghanistan,” he replied. “We are trying to get to Arkansas for her funeral.”

He had come straight off a 12 hour shift in the copper mine in Ely, Nevada (which explained the stained jacket and jeans), then driven four hours to the airport in Salt Lake City. The funeral, with full military honors, would be on Saturday.

His sister’s name was Sarina Mills Butcher. She is an American hero. Sarina was a member of the Oklahoma National Guard who died when her convoy hit an IED. She would have been 20 next week. She joined the military so she could pay for her schooling—she wanted to be a nurse. Sarina leaves behind a two year old daughter, Zoe.

“Zoe—that means ‘life,’” I told him. His eyes filled up with tears again. We talked about life, the randomness of it all. He told me about his own time in Iraq, how he couldn’t help but feel guilty, like he should have been the one to die. Sarina was going to come to Vegas on her next leave and meet him there to celebrate her 20th birthday.

It was a sobering flight. I’ve lost people I love, so I know what it feels like—that initial stage of shock, the overwhelming sense of loss. “You have to be strong for your mom,” I told him. He nodded.  As we parted ways, I told him I would light a candle for Sarina. “Thank you,” he said, and shook my hand.

As I entered the terminal, I couldn’t help but notice the smug young man who had refused to give up his seat. I did not have kind thoughts for him. But I know we all make selfish choices sometimes, when we lack information (or sometimes even when we have information). In a way, I was grateful for his stubbornness, because I got to learn firsthand about a young mother who died too soon in the service of her country, to celebrate her life and to mourn her passing.

We’ve been at war for more than ten years.  The Roman poet Horace wrote “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” But there are few things that are sweet about the loss of a young mother.


Elaine said...

You know he was meant to sit by you. We also will light candles for his sister.

Fatemeh Khatibloo said...

I came to your site because of the post about your son.

But I've spent the last hour -- or more -- devouring your writing.

I am blown away by your thoughtfulness, approach to life, and clarity.

As an agnostic atheist and secular humanist, I'm deeply interested in ethics. Your post about underage drinking really resonated, and made me pause to think.

Thank you for that. And I sincerely hope that we, as a society, don't let you and your boy down.

LeeAnn said...

Same here...I can't stop reading. Your writing is mesmirizing.

Unknown said...

I was doing research for some homework when I stopped to read this. Thank you for sharing this story. I am a veteran and I understand how the brother feels even if it wasn't my sister by relation she was still my sister in arms. Broke me down pretty hard I think I needed to read this. Thank you again.