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Giving thanks to America's finest on Memorial Day

U.S. Air Force Photo Illustration by Naoko Shimoji

(U.S. Air Force Photo Illustration/Naoko Shimoji)

KADENA AIR BASE, Japan -- (As a former White House staffer who served in the administration of President George W. Bush, I spent nearly four years commuting to Washington D.C., while my Air Force spouse was answering duty's call outside the Beltway. I wrote these sentiments several years ago while on a flight leaving Atlanta a few days before Memorial Day. The sentiment remains true.)

I can't remember the last time I traveled though Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport without seeing some of America's finest passing through the concourses on their way to places unknown to serve, defend, and protect our great nation.

I've seen them gather in clusters waiting on their flights or wandering out on their own passing the time in solitude. They serve as constant reminders that we are a nation at war and that the guardians of our freedom are daddies, husbands, wives, and daughters.

I've seen them countless times during my bi-monthly commutes between Washington D.C., and Eglin Air Force Base. And this night was no exception. So as I dragged my bag from Concourse A to E, I began looking for The One.

Two years ago I started a ritual that I faithfully practice whenever I travel through the airport. I pick out a Soldier, Sailor, Airman, or Marine and find some small way to thank him or her for their service. And I never leave the airport without engaging in my own personal Operation Gratitude. Each time I walk through these familiar concourses I say a prayer for God to direct me to someone who could use a kind word, or a friendly smile, or a hot meal.

Sometimes I've found The One on the escalator, or in line in the ladies room, or at the food court. And each time after my brief encounter I always walk away with a smile - but inevitably, I find myself forcing back a  sizable lump in my throat and the onslaught of tears welling inside of me. But in spite of my emotions I do it anyway. And so on this night, like many others, I began my search for The One.

At first there were just a few - but that didn't last long. As I approached the end of Concourse E, I saw a sea of camo khakis, brushed boots, and fresh young faces. There were hundreds of them. They filled every seat and overflowed onto the floor spanning the distance of three gates. I was overcome with pride. And with gratitude. And I stopped in my tracks and paused to take in this beautiful sight.

You would think I would be used to it by now - the sight of uniformed men and women preparing to deploy in service to our nation. Throughout more than 20 years as a military spouse I have seen thousands deploy and said far too many goodbyes to my own Airman as he took part of my heart with him to places unknown to serve and defend and protect our great nation. But I never get used to it. And maybe that's the way it should be.

I tried to look around for The One, I really did. But I just couldn't do it this time. Although there were hundreds of troops standing right in front of me I couldn't bring myself to move and approach a single one. The tears were imminent and I knew there was no way I could speak. So I leaned up against the wall and watched as the gate agent called for their flight. And as they formed a long line to board the aircraft I did the only thing I knew to do. I prayed for them.

As they filed passed me I prayed for their strength and peace in the midst of chaos. I prayed for their safety and for their health. I prayed for their families and the loved ones left behind who would - that very night - face a gut-wrenching loneliness only understood by others who have seen a loved one off to war. And then I prayed for our nation and for our President and for our world.

I prayed until the last soldier had passed in front of me and the boarding door had closed and then I let the tears stream freely down my face. They will never know me, or the prayers lifted up on their behalf. But I believe that this gesture is powerful in its simplicity, and on this night I hope it made a difference.

As you celebrate this Memorial Day remember that this very day there are troops passing through airports on their way to places unknown to serve, and defend, and protect our great nation. They are a part of our country's legacy of service and sacrifice. On this day and everyday they deserve our thanks, they've earned our gratitude, and they need our prayers.

Mrs. Wilsbach is the spouse of 18th Wing commander, Brig. Gen. Ken Wilsbach.