I sat in O’Hare yesterday, ate some sushi, had a sparkling wine, and life was good. My plan was to get on my flight back to Phoenix, position myself just right, and sleep all the way.
As I boarded, I noticed a young man sitting next to me who looked to be in his late 30’s. I jokingly asked that he wake me up if I snorted from snoring, and he promised he would. I later found out his name is William. As we took off, he asked me how long the flight was. I told him 3 1/2 hours, and he mentioned the longest flight he’s been on was 24 hours. When I asked him from where, he nonchalantly said, “Afghanistan”. He said he really preferred helicopters to airplanes, and he was a little nervous.
As anyone would, I asked if he was in the military, he said yes, he had served in the Army. I asked what he did now, and his response was, “I go to several appointments each week”. My puzzled look must have given me away, so he shared that he’d been “medically discharged”. He admitted to me the shame that comes with having a medical discharge, and it was something he didn’t want to do. As I thanked him for his service to our country, he seemed uncomfortable. I asked, “Does that feel weird to have people thank you?”. He said yes, because he never knows really how to react. I continued to pepper him with questions, because I felt like his soul had literally pierced my heart like an arrow and the more I asked, the more engaged he became, almost as if it was therapeutic to talk to someone. As a mother to a 30 year old, I couldn’t help but think, “This could be my son”.
He wore two metal bracelets and I asked what they said. They had the names of his friends who were killed. Four total, from a suicide bomber. An Army Captain, by the name of Florent Groberg, received the Medal of Honor for jumping on the suicide bomber, preventing many more men in his detail from being blown up (he’s one of only 10 living recipients of this prestigious honor). Four were killed as William dragged Capt. Groberg to his truck, and to take his mind off his injury, William jokingly said, “Don’t bleed all over my truck”. He told me his calf muscle was ripped to shreds. I read an article later that said Capt. Groberg lost 45-50% of his calf muscle, requiring 33 surgeries and 3 years to recover at Walter Reed Medical Center in DC. He later wrote a book called, “8 Seconds of Courage”. William was proud of the fact that he attended the ceremony in D.C.
William suffers from severe back issues (disc compressions – he actually needs his back fused but is holding out because he’s so young), knee issues, traumatic brain injury (you’d never know it) and severe PTSD. His Mom is his caregiver, and he clutched his fidget cube (shown in his hand above) the whole trip, intermittently clicking the different gadgets around it. When I asked what it was, he explained that it helps him stay focused. He eventually leaned forward and as he fell asleep, he would slowly lean over, accidentally crowding me, only to quickly move back where he was, never losing his grip on his cube. My plan of sleeping the entire flight was quickly thwarted, as I could not take my mind off the things he’d shared.
He told me he had been in a village in Afghanistan that spoke it’s own language (as in no where in the world is this language spoken – the name escapes me now). It was very difficult to survive when you couldn’t communicate. He lived ONE YEAR on a mountainside, and went 10 MONTHS without a shower. During this time, his wife back home, frustrated that he was gone, ended up with another man. They divorced. He was only around 23 yrs. old. He explained how he would have to travel down the entire mountain to call her, all the while being shot at. His biggest regret is the fact he’s always wanted children of his own. I told him he had his whole life ahead of him, and he should not discard the possibility.
He said he had no regrets. In fact, he went back for a second tour, because he “KNEW” they were helping people. During the first tour, women were being beheaded for not having their heads covered. The second tour, women’s rights had significantly improved, but he said it was more mentally taxing the second year because of the level of suicide bombers. They would strap bombs to children, so you had no idea who to trust. It was very damaging to him on an emotional level.
William shared the depths of his torment. His desire to help people. He’s one of ten children all born within 13 years and has a loving family. He was traveling to Phoenix to spend time with his sister, and while he’s here, his parents are taking a trip to the Dominic Republic. He is on enough medication to choke a horse. One of the meds I’m familiar with and he takes triple the amount I did (I can’t even imagine). He said it allows him to experience the nightmares at night, but no longer remember them when he wakes up. He spent a couple of years in his bedroom, unable to leave, and is finally able to get out and work out and lose some of the weight he gained. They are suggesting a service dog, but he’s still deciding. Being on a plane, ALONE, was a huge step for him. It was sort of strange, because for all accounts and purposes, William seemed absolutely normal. Like ABSOLUTELY normal. But he has demons he’ll live with the rest of his life. His Mom called him when he landed to check in. He snickered, almost embarrassed that he’s a strapping 6 ft.+ Army veteran having his Mom check in as if he were 12 yrs. old.
He’s humble. He’s kind. He’s funny. He’s strong. He’s smart. He’s never smoked and never drank. He has promise. He would like to be an EMT or something along that line so he can continue to help others.
William is just ONE of the thousands of men and women whose lives will never be the same. William doesn’t want to be called a hero. He said the true heroes are the ones whose names are inscribed on his bracelets.
One final question I asked was how he felt about the V.A., their benefits and their support for soldiers. He said he was very impressed. I think the V.A. gets a bad rap – and perhaps in parts of the country they are sub-par, but I’ve seen first-hand taking my Dad to appointments the level of care and compassion given to our military personnel.
For four hours, one mother in Chicago worried about her 29 yr. old son while he was flying to Phoenix. Little did she know another mother was watching over him, and will never forget the sacrifice he’s made for our country.
Never forget, friends, we are all ONE. My children are yours, yours are mine. Our spirits are connected – and the more we are able to reach out, engage, and let others know they’re loved, the more peace we will have.
I’ll never see William again … but I’ll never forget him.
– Jules –