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I'll Be Home For Christmas: Flying With Our Troops Through The Pre-Winter Storms

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You know your holiday week is on course when your planes are delayed or canceled due to nasty travel conditions, a tradition many of us reluctantly embrace year after year. But such is the joy of the season, we all deal with it, and, exhausted, we finally reach those we love with some gifts that are slightly dinged in transit, a few fraying strands of good humor, and a huge sense of relief.

This year, however, air travel was particularly gruesome, with airports intermittently shutting down or re-routing most mid-western flights due to what airline attendants and customer service assistants called "weather"--as in, "due to weather, our Omaha flight is landing in St. Louis." By midnight, December 18th, in most cases, flights were canceled or so significantly postponed that airlines had to assist "distressed passengers" (the industry's term for the unlucky) find refuge for the night. Older travelers and families with young children and early teens raced to local hotels for a shower and a handful of quiet hours during which came either a semi-sound sleep or a brilliant, devious plot to end the stressful journey. The more youthful demographics, the tightly-budgeted, and new starter clans slept across seats and floors in designated airline waiting areas, smartly choosing a little discomfort over what potentially would be re-enacted scenes from Steve Martin's, John Candy's and John Hughes' Trains, Planes & Automobiles.

In the morning, after a short rest, the hotel-pampered passengers exhaustedly lined-up for continental breakfasts of barely-brewed coffee (and nothing else), airport shuttles and taxis, and yet another dose of security screenings. Then, blending-in with the airport's temporary residents, the herd staggered zombie-like through terminal food courts and bookstores as they bravely faced a new day of cancellations, postponed flight times, endless gate changes, and missed connections. What kept people going was the belief that, regardless of the "weather," they finally would make it to their destinations. Maybe.

But another breed of traveler suddenly joined the masses, one that positively changed the general mood of things. Groups of soldiers in training or those back from a tour of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan also killed time wandering the airport's now-chaotic pathways and people movers. Actually, out of St. Louis alone, 6500 soldiers from Forts Leonardwood, Campbell and Knox triangulated the airport and began their odyssey home, those destinations spanning from Smallvilles to Metropolis' across the country. Groups or pairs of young men and women wearing slightly modernized grey-green, digital checker-patterned fatigues traversed the terminals, their rowdiness being spontaneous, disciplined and brief; their camaraderie, especially after spending virtually every waking and sleeping hour together for months on end, was obvious and admirable, and a little surprising considering. And as snow and ice was strangling air travel further, this crowd already was on holiday with virtually nothing capable of dimming their festiveness. Their enthusiasm was noticeably contagious.

Time seemingly suspended like a Twilight Zone episode, it was mainly middle-aged men that initially approached soldiers with names like Tyrell, Kyle, Zack, etc., either sharing stories of their own adventures in the military or thanking the much-younger servicemen and women for their work. Middle-aged women, especially those with impressionable children, cutely mothered the male troops and passed on stories about deceased military family members, hometown gossip, and an impromptu recipe or three to take home to their moms. That triggered stories by the soldiers that ranged from their personal achievements such as overseeing troubled youth wilderness programs and helping to raise a late-sister's family, to county concerns like the Noxon and Cogent plant closings or hops farms being sold by Anheuser Busch to a Belgian investor. The conversations continued, re-focusing on thirteen hound dogs, cougar hunting, building snow forts, and what it was like to have been a defensive tackle on the University of Montana's football team. And they even spent a little time educating the civilians on military protocol and their speedtalk acronyms (i.e. PT is physical training, AKO is Army Knowledge Online - a site for service members to check out what's new, placements, etc.).

Throughout the day, girls flirted and dudes joked and bonded with the soldiers. As the percentage of troops pared down due to planes actually taking off, iPod content finally became the primary topic. Almost every genre was discussed, but among rock and rap/r&b, the consensus was that the following artists ruled: AC/DC, Godsmack, Three Days Grace, Metallica, Breaking Benjamin, Linkin Park, Lamb Of God, Buckcherry, Rob Zombie, Ozzy Osbourne, Guns N' Roses, Ted Nugent, Van Halen, Ludacris, Three 6 Mafia, Jay-Z, The Game, Akon, Kanye West, Little Wayne, Flo-Rida, Nelly, and Beyoncé. On the country side, they liked Kenny Chesney, Dierks Bentley, Trace Adkins, Jason Aldean, Montgomerey Gentry, Brooks & Dunn, Tim McGraw, and Chris LeDoux. Significant songs included Gun N' Roses' "Civil War," Big & Rich's "Eight Of November," Rascal Flatts' "Me And My Gang," Hinder's "Heaven Sent," Shine Down's "45," and Staind's "Pardon Me." Besides iPods, soldiers' knapsacks stashed away adrenaline-stoking DVDs such as The Dark Knight, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Speed Racer, Hancock, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

On the escaping planes that pinballed from airport to airport across the stormy skies, soldiers and civilians sat side by side and got to know each other over Ritz Chips, salted peanuts and Cokes as they together fought off fatigue. Tales of life in Iraq flowed easily from one soldier. He revealed a little guilt but no remorse for killing a terrorist who attacked his buddy. There were more stories coming from various soldiers detailing house searches for insurgents, the strategy behind the procedures, toilet holes that later were discovered to be munitions warehouses, the incorporation of copper in the latest upgrade in IEDs, and the overall lack of preparedness on the part of the Iraqi police and military. Almost universally, each soldier surrendered the reason for his or her enlistment--9/11. Many remembered their teachers coming into class with the news. Others recalled, on that day, even though they were children, they were determined to join the military to protect America. Politics were discussed without heated debate, and with a decent respect on both sides for the other's beliefs. Then again, when people are feeling queasy and strapped into adjoining seats, their plane constantly changing altitude as it surfs the atmosphere, there may be other priorities than fighting over politics.

Despite the unbearable turbulence, landings succeeded, albeit some were bumpier than others (with Continental Flight 1404 almost not making it). This was followed by instant, appreciative applause from everyone aboard the plane upon most arrivals. The flight assistants thanked the crews, the passengers, and our troops (which prompted more applause), and then, these Armies of One exited the planes with their new civilian friends hoping they'll be safe when they eventually take that longer trip oversees to, most likely, Afghanistan. It became apparent that the most important thing about everyone's connections that day never concerned planes, but people. Regardless of one's opinion on the wars, Bush, or the democratic and republican parties, all these soldiers wanted in life as they disembarked was to get home to their families for the holidays with some gifts that were slightly dinged in transit, a few fraying strands of good humor, and a huge sense of relief.

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