“Thank you for your service.”
I paused momentarily at the words, and looked up from my lunch to see who was speaking. An elderly woman was reaching out to put her hand on the arm of an Army captain, with a look of sincere gratitude in her eyes. It’s a scene that plays out in every airport across the country as a thankful public expresses their appreciation to members of our Armed Forces.
It happens to us all at one time or another. For me, it tends to be a humbling experience, maybe even a little uncomfortable. This is my chosen profession, and I've never felt a need to be thanked for my decision. But I also recognize that for many, they need to express their gratitude for the sacrifices we make, for what we give of ourselves for our Nation. So, when I'm approached, I stop what I'm doing and take a moment to acknowledge their thanks and remind them that I also appreciate what they do to support our forces and how much it means to all of us. Courtesy is a two-way street.
On this day, I watch the scene unfold before me as the grandmotherly woman shares a story of the service of some distant relative, and the captain politely listens. Then she reaches into her purse and withdraws a pair of crisp $20 bills and puts them in the officer’s hand. “Let me buy your lunch today. I know that you don’t make a lot of money. It would mean so much to me.” The captain smiles, accepts the cash, and thanks her for her kindness and generosity.
He slips the money into the pocket of his Army Combat Uniform and takes a seat next to me at the restaurant bar. Ordering a craft beer from the bartender, he glances at me with a look we all recognize: the “Are you going to buy my beer?” look. But we're not going to play today, we're going to dance.
If two decades in uniform taught me anything, it’s what my first platoon sergeant used to preach about: attention to detail. The captain isn't wearing a combat patch and doesn't have that look of bewilderment most of us bring home from the combat zone, so I'm betting that he’s “just passing through” on temporary duty. Since Army regulations dictate that only personnel transiting to or from a combat zone are allowed to wear the Army Combat Uniform, he’s also in the wrong uniform. But it’s the black cross sewn over his nametape that really catches my eye. This guy’s a chaplain.
The other thing that all those years in uniform teach you is to maintain situational awareness. So, when I see a man in his 40s with a high-and-tight haircut wearing tightly-pressed Dockers and a polo shirt having a salad and a glass of water at an airport bar, nine times out of ten he’s going to be in the military. Even out of uniform, members of our profession have a “look” that gives us away. We walk differently, we talk differently, and we carry ourselves differently. To the average civilian, we're invisible, but we recognize one another with relative ease. It’s the look of the profession.
But he’s clueless, so this dance will be fun.
“In the Army, huh?” I ask him.
He leans back on his stool and sizes me up. Maybe this guy’s gonna buy my drink after all. “Yeah. Did the uniform give it away?”
We both have a laugh. “You must miss your family. Been away long?”
“It seems like I'm never at home,” he answers.
Let’s cut to the chase. “You just getting back from a deployment?”
He gives me a blank look, as if he wasn’t expecting the question. If he gives me one of those “I don't like to talk about it.” answers, I seriously think I might throat punch him. He pauses to consider how best to respond.
“Not this time. I'm on my way home from training.”
Not this time? Really?
I can't help myself. “Have you had to deploy a lot? I know you guys are back-and-forth all the time.”
He’s starting to get uncomfortable with the questions. People clearly don't engage him on this level. “I spend most of my time traveling to counsel my Soldiers. I'm a chaplain.”
I feign surprise. “Really? That’s amazing. It must really be tough on you, having to deal with everything you see.” This is fun, but I really hope I'm not laying it on too thick.
Again, he leans back on his barstool. This guy’s gonna buy me a drink. “It can be difficult, sometimes. But you learn to deal with it. It comes with the job.”
The amount of bullshit this guy is slinging is unbelievable. It’s time to stop dancing.
“You know you're not allowed to wear that uniform unless you're either headed out or coming back from a deployment,” I say coldly, looking him straight in the eyes.
He’s clearly taken aback by my statement, but recovers quickly. “No. I’m allowed to. I'm a chaplain.”
“That doesn't matter,” I respond. “AR 670–1 is very specific on the matter. Unless you're transiting to or from a combat zone, you either wear civilian clothes or the Army Service Uniform.”
“Oh, that,” he replies. “I’m in the Reserves, the rules are different for us. Besides, I don't have time to change clothes. My schedule is too tight.”
Somebody kill me. Please. “If you've got time to take $40 from a little old lady who probably lives off Social Security, you've got time to change clothes.”
His eyes give away his thoughts: Oh, you saw that. “You don't understand,” he says defensively. “These people appreciate what I do. They want to show their appreciation. They want to shake my hand. I’d be wrong to refuse.”
“You're right about one thing: you're wrong,” I reply curtly. “You took advantage of someone who doesn't know one Joe from another. She thought she was helping someone in need and you abused that trust. She thought you were coming home from a war, and you let her think that. You're supposed to be a leader, a professional. You can’t walk around airports pretending to be something you're not. The fact you're a chaplain just makes it worse. You might want to think about that. You embarrassed us all today.”
He stumbled backward off his barstool, considered a response, but thought better of it. He leaned down for his $200 deployment-special backpack and left the bar without paying for his beer. The bartender started to call out and I waved him off. Ruining that guy’s day was worth the price of a beer. Even an overly-expensive airport beer.
As I returned to the remains of my salad, a young man filled the empty barstool at my side. He ordered a cup of coffee, then took a quick glance my way. “Hey, sir, how’s it going?”
Tight haircut, pressed jeans, a black polo shirt. “Good. You?”
“You know the deal, sir. Another day in paradise.”