I’m standing at a Sheraton hotel bar at Frankfurt Airport doing an overnighter, waiting for a flight to LAX on my way home from Helsinki, Finland.
I’ve been on a business trip, having a beer and a burger, bone-tired from dramatic time zone changes and nonstop movement for a week. I think I’ve had it rough. Food and drink in hand, I find a seat next to a group of about 12 quiet men.
At first glance they’re a bit scruffy, otherwise nondescript. Looking closer, an innate military bearing gives them away. They’re unassuming, wearing civies. But there’s no doubt.
Theirs are young men’s faces, taut with old men’s eyes, providing fleeting windows into souls navigating seemingly endless war. Physically fit, these guys are sun-lined, field-lean, with the hardened countenance of seasoned soldiers who actually have had it rough.
I am a small man, insignificant, I’m thinking. My troubles are nothing.
I take a bite of my burger, ask one of the guys to pass the vinegar for my chips. He says sure. They speak “American.” In Europe, just about everyone speaks English. But you can recognize “American” from across the room.
They’re two Canadians and 10 Americans. They won’t tell me where they’ve been or where they’re going. But they’re friendly and patient and pretty funny. We drink. We chat. They loosen up, a bit amused at the tired Yank peppering them with questions.
They like talking smack about Brexit, the NBA finals, telling “hoser” jokes about the grinning Canadians. They seem to appreciate mixing it up with a California businessman who knows a couple of things — not about the world they inhabit, but the world they remember, the one they fight for.
I try not to pry, but the curiosity is killing me. I keep at it until one quietly admits they’re special forces. Elite warriors. From what service branch I can’t tell — Army Delta or Navy SEALs. They certainly won’t tell me. I focus on not acting like a fanboy.
What I know from breaking bread and drinking with them is that though they’ve seen unspeakable things, they’re immensely modest with humble dispositions. I want to hug each one, buy him a round, make him a sandwich — something to express my gratitude.
But I don’t. That would be weird, bust up the vibe. They just want to talk — without talking about themselves, without it being a big deal.
And it makes me think: Man, I’m glad for people like this, doing our dirty work all over hell and beyond. They leave the questions and the doubts and the political backbiting to us. They don’t ask if they’re fighting for democracy or for democracy’s monied overlords. They might wonder if they’re at war defending our freedom, or defending the freedom of war profiteers to ride their backs. But they don’t think it out loud. They just do as they’re ordered, do their duty, their jobs.
They’re fine men — the world’s best at their business. It was my privilege to hang with them for an hour.
I fly home. Back to my reality of making a living, paying bills, meeting obligations, trying to stay healthy, trying to be a good dad, a good citizen, trying to make a difference.
Then I go back to work online, try to catch up on all I’ve missed politically in San Luis Obispo County over the past 10 days. And I realize how incredibly tiny and trivial my world seems compared to the service of those hardened guys.
I read the usual petty remarks on Facebook and the Tribune’s comment sections. This so-and-so thinks I’m wearing a lousy shirt. Someone else thinks I’m an idiot. Several anonymous knuckleheads wonder why The Tribune pays me to write such crap.
And I think: “Note to trolls and anonymous cowards — It’s on the house. You’re welcome.”
And I wonder: Where are the guys now? Are they under fire? Are they OK? Are they scared?
Why do they do it? Would they do it if they believed their cause was unworthy? Do they doubt?
Would they do it if they realized it was in service of small and insignificant people like me — in service of so many who believe the lint in our navels is the sum total of the world?
And I think: Sure they would.
Bravery, honor, duty, perseverance, tolerance, diversity, knowledge, science. Those men represent the best in us. Would that we were worthy of them as we celebrate this Fourth of July.
Liberal columnist Tom Fulks is a former reporter and opinion writer. He has been a political campaign consultant for many local races. His column runs in The Tribune every other Sunday, in rotation with conservative columnist Matthew Hoy.