October 28, 2023

They Do What We Won’t

 I had a last-minute closing the other evening and did not want to attend. I was tired, busy, behind, and feeling anti-social. I tried to find someone to cover for me, but there wasn’t anyone available. I figured 15 minutes there, 30 minutes to sign, and 15 minutes back; I would just suck it up and go. I was gone for over three hours. Sometimes, the universe rewards you when you do something you don’t want to do.

     The closing starts just like any other. I explain “the rules” while we laugh about living in a paperless society as we stare down a stack of 200 pages and start signing. We chat about the weather, the process, staying busy during a pandemic, etc.  He talks about being back in the gym and misses his golden retrievers. We are moving right along. He then starts to tell me a bit about his life. His grandparents lived next to the Mary Jemison farm, and his grandfather, a foreman in Letchworth State Park, would stroll the grounds looking for arrowheads. 

     He remembers his grandparents living in the park at one time. He told me his entire family had passed away by the time he turned 22, and he was all alone. He put himself through college and was undecided about what he wanted. Driving down West Ridge Road one day, he saw a recruiting center in a plaza. He pulled in, saw the Army sign, and told the recruiter, “Sign me up.”

     That’s how the retired Army Colonel’s story started. Over the next three hours, he laughed, cried, and shared some incredible stories with me.

     He spoke about basic training and friends he had made. He told me about when he had been promoted as an aide to two generals, and the general’s wife came to see him for a chat. He laughingly told me, “Doesn’t matter how many stars you have; your wife is still the boss.”

     Colonel told me about how he had been in Iraq and Afghanistan and almost died on two separate occasions.

      Out in the field, he had been exposed to a chemical agent and started vomiting blood. The same nurse attended to him in the field, during his evacuation, and in the hospital. As they prepared to intubate him, he accidentally kicked this same nurse, in her chest, into a wall. After he recovered, he met up with her and apologized. Every month for an entire year, he sent her flowers. He swears she saved his life. To this day, they still keep in touch by phone and email.

      He spoke about the time he was in combat and thought he would surely die. He couldn’t fathom any way for him and his men to get out. Unbeknownst to him, his General had slipped a tracker into his pocket. When the General realized where they were, he ordered an airstrike that saved the Colonel and his men.

     He told me haltingly, with tears streaming down his face, about the men he had lost and that bringing those soldiers home to their families was the hardest thing he’d ever done.

     The Colonel showed me a picture of the Pentagon. Pointing to the damage, “See that? I was there.” The Colonel had been in the part of the Pentagon that was hit on 9/11. He told me he had to dig himself out of the rubble. As he staggered down the hallway, he saw another man partially buried with his hand outstretched. The Colonel held his hand as he died. Later, the Colonel would ask the Chaplain why God spared him. The Chaplain said, “God needs good people everywhere. Your mission that day was to give that man comfort in the end. No one should die alone.”

     He tells me about listening to the transmission of Flight 93 and how a Navy Seal turned to him after hearing “Let’s roll” and said, “Even with all my military training, I don’t know if I would have had the courage to do what they did.” The Navy Seal then turned away to hide his sobs.

     The Colonel tells me he was invited to speak at the Flight 93 National Memorial, and he held a piece of glass in his hand the whole time he was speaking. He didn’t want to cry, and that glass helped to remind him. He didn’t cry until afterward when an old woman came and sat next to him on a bench as she spoke to him about the memorial and those who had been on the flight.

     He showed me the two flags that had been flown over the Pentagon that now hung on his wall.

     He told me that for years he had never spoken about any of this and that now it was time. He thanked me for listening and showed me how he had been bringing up items from the basement that had been part of his military career to finally share with his children. I shook his hand and told him it was an honor to have met and listened to him, and off I went.

     I didn’t do this story justice, and I know I didn’t get every detail correct, nor did I tell you every tale he told me. I hope I conveyed what a giant this man is. Every day, heroes walk among us. I think we need to do a better job recognizing them. God Bless our military, past and present, every single day. 

They do what we won’t.