The Plain-Clothed Service Members Among Us

11/25/2011 06:42 pm ET | Updated Jan 25, 2012

It happens to every service member -- usually in airports.

After a little more than two years of wearing this uniform, I still don't quite know how to respond when a stranger walks up to me and says, "Thank you for your service."

It's a mixture of awkward gratitude. Awkward, because I don't think what I'm doing is particularly notable. Sure, I'd die for my country, but is there any citizen, given the right set of circumstances, who wouldn't?

Okay... don't answer that. But consider this: there are so many civilians who deploy alongside us, who wear bulletproof vests, sometimes carry weapons and run for cover when the mortars hit; who may never be thanked for their service, simply because they don't wear the same uniform we do.

When I arrived at Bagram Air Field -- Afghanistan's behemoth of a base -- two things amazed me. The first was what a cosmopolitan beehive it was. Walking down Spc. Jason A. Disney Drive, Bagram's main street, one can hear the cacophony of the world.

The second thing that awed me, was how many of the voices surrounding me came not just from the mouths of coalition soldiers, who hail from places like Poland, South Korea and France, but civilians from around the globe.

They work as drivers, hair dressers, interpreters, cafeteria workers, cooks, instructors, beauticians, maintenance workers, cashiers, security guards, builders, advisers, administrators.

Some are prior service. Some are not. I've heard some have obese paychecks, while others do not.

Irreverently, they bustle about in untucked t-shirts, baseball caps, blue jeans, skinny jeans, sneakers. Sometimes their hair is in locks. Sometimes they sport hoop earrings, wear too much makeup, or even worse, too much perfume. They color the post, providing much needed normalcy in an abnormal situation, and I am so grateful for it.

Whether these civilians are from Afghanistan, the United States, Australia, Uganda, or Trinidad, I find their presence here remarkably brave and way more voluntary than mine. They can quit any any time they want; I can't. If they don't show for work, they're fired. If I don't show for work, it becomes a legal matter. They risk their lives, as much as troops do.

According to ProPublica, 2,008 civilian workers, hired by US companies, were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, between Sept. 2001 and June 2010. The number of US service members killed in the same period was 5,531.

These civilians dodge bullets and grenades. Earlier this month, I did a story about a grenade attack that wounded U.S. soldiers of C Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, while they were hunting for a bomb maker in Khowst Province, Afghanistan.

While the story centered on the soldiers who came within feet of the grenades, there were other casualties, including one civilian, Louis Posada.

As a law enforcement expert who works for a Virginia-based security firm, Mr. Posada advises U.S. units and helps train Afghan troops. When an insurgent threw a WWII-era pineapple grenade at Mr. Posada and the soldiers he was with, the Boynton Beach, Fla., resident took shrapnel to the left side of his body.

For his injuries, Mr. Posada has been nominated for the Defense of Freedom Medal, the civilian equivalent to the Purple Heart. Like the soldiers wounded beside him, Mr. Posada didn't allow a grenade to slow him down. The former Marine got right back to work after the attack, and continues to serve in Afghanistan.

More than 100 civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan have received the Defense of Freedom Medal, since former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld created it ten years ago. The medal was first awarded to Pentagon employees killed or injured in the 9-11 attacks.

I'll be the first to confess that I'm guilty of taking these plain-clothed heroes who labor so diligently among us for granted. In the spirit of gratitude, I really want to give thanks where it is overdue. So, to Mr. Posada and all the many, many civilians who work alongside us:

Thank you for your service. Truly.

**Disclaimer: Though I am a soldier proudly serving in the U.S. Army, the opinions, gripes, expressions of joy and anguish, or any other meandering thought that end up on this blog are entirely of my own conjuring. They never in any way -- neither closely or even remotely -- reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. **