My superior officer passed the envelope over his desk and saluted indicating my dismissal. After a quick salute, I took the orders, swiveled, and walked out of the office.
Some days I liked my position but my duties of late were taking an emotional toll. When a wounded soldier came home from war, my job was to accompany him on his flight from base to his hometown. I do everything possible to ensure his comfort and meet any needs along the way. Also, facilitating the reunion between the soldier and his family has grown to be a bigger and bigger necessity. Though warned before hand, families are often not prepared for what they see.
The plane stood ready on the tarmac. I skipped up the steps, saluted the officers at the door, and entered the aircraft.
Vincent sat in his wheelchair secured tightly to the floor staring out the window.
“Sir, I am Lieutenant Lance Williams. It will be my honor to escort you home, sir.” There was no response. Not even a twitch of a muscle.
I fumbled in my pocket for the orders I had been given earlier and skimmed over the details. Vincent had been injured in an ambush. Many of his comrades died. He escaped with broken legs but more devastatingly…loss of hearing.
Touching his shoulder, I drew Vincent’s attention. He turned toward me, eyes red, face puffy; his sadness quickly engulfing me.
“Sir. I will be escorting you home,” I wrote on a white board that had been placed along the side of his chair.
“Sir, do you need anything?”
I wiped the words off the board and placed it back at his side. Following the commands of the pilot, I buckled into a seat keeping an eye on Vincent.
About an hour into the flight, he began writing.
“I can’t face Charlie.” It read. Vincent wiped at his nose.
“Whose Charlie?” I scribbled back.
“My kid brother.”
Throughout the two hour flight home, Vincent and I exchanged many notes. I learned that Charlie had been born deaf. He struggled his whole life and Vincent had been his hero. Always there for him. Always the strong one. Always the protector.
Vincent had even learned sign language so he could teach it to Charlie. He applauded every success Charlie achieved and stood by him through every set back. He wasn’t ready to see his little brother in this new condition.
The plane taxied to a stop and I pointed out the window. Several hundred people had gathered for Vincent’s homecoming. Balloons were in the air and banners with loving wishes written on them were held high. A ten year old boy, face beaming, hair slicked to one side stood at the very front.
“That’s Charlie,” Vincent wrote.
I knelt down and looked Vincent in the face. “You ready?” I mouthed.
A slight nod was my only reply.
I rolled Vincent toward the door. Usually when the soldier came into view, the crowd would go wild with applause; but not this time. Everyone stood solemnly still. I pressed forward despite my extreme annoyance.
After reaching the bottom of the ramp, I waited for the crowd to make the first move.
Charlie stepped forward; tears streaming down his smiling face. In slow motion he lifted his hands up. I waited for the applause to begin. He brought his hands about shoulder length high and shoulder length apart, turned the palms facing in, and started shaking them. Slowly and with great feeling.
Vincent sniffed and rubbed at his nose once more.
Confused, I watched in amazement as one by one, others in the crowd followed Charlie's lead. The shaking gained momentum as more and more joined. Within moments, everyone was applauding Vincent in what is known in the deaf world as the sign for clapping. But all the while, not a sound was heard.
Shivers went up and down my spine as I took this moment in. Admittedly, the silence paid more homage to this hero than any raucous clapping could have ever done.
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