17 March, 2008

Vets for Freedom

I went to the American Heroes Tour kickoff ostensibly to cover it as a blogger-journalist. I was going to interview people, take notes, have lots to report to readers here and at the Castle. But for many reasons, that didn't happen. I did make some good contacts who will hopefully sit down for an interview, so you may see their stories here soon. And besides, Jimbo is doing a great job capturing video of the powerful speeches.

So, instead, I'll try to tell you what I saw behind the scenes. I say try, because I still haven't sorted out the experiences and feelings of the evening.

The mood for the party was rather unique--both celebratory and somber, with attendance ranging from junior enlisted military personnel, to families, upperclass civilians, politicians and the recently-wounded, and ordinary folks like me. We proudly cheered people who had performed heroic acts, and soberly listened to Marines perform a heavy-duty rock song about having killed. I watched one man with an above-the-knee amputation walk around on his computerized leg. How did I know it was above-the-knee? He was wearing shorts; and nobody was staring at him. There was laughter and tears and smiles... anger and pride... and hope for the future--hope that all will not have been in vain, hope inspired in part by the leadership of the amazing people who spoke.

Maybe it was because they knew they were among "friends," but I got reactions I didn't expect. One seemingly reserved veteran hugged me when I thanked him for both his active-duty service and his service-leadership in being a part of the event. Another veteran looked at me with an unreadable expression when I thanked him for standing the line in my place... only to much later approach me and wordlessly rub my back with his hand before walking silently away.

Marine veteran Duncan Hunter threw me for a loop, too. A brain cramp had led me to greet him with indifference, so I later apologized and we conversed a bit. I told him he already looked the part with his khakis and blue sports jacket, and closed with, "Good luck. Just don't let Washington eat your heart out, okay?" The music was blaring and he leaned in over me to cheerily respond, "Don't worry. I won't." He paused for a perfect beat before unleashing a wicked smile... "I'm a Marine; I don't have one." It's an old joke, but the last one I expected a man running for political office to make. I grinned and replied, "Sorry, but I have a couple Marine friends, so I know that's a load of bull!" He busted up, laughing as I walked away.

Actor Jon Voight was another person there who didn't behave as I expected. Until I heard about him in conjunction with the Tour, I'd had no idea he was a strong "supporter of the troops." But he is a full-throated advocate and admirer. I had taken my Soldiers' Angels coin with me, not knowing if or to whom I would give it, but after hearing Voight speak on Hugh Hewitt's show at the event, I knew where it would go. I walked up to him and shook his hand while thanking him for "going against the grain in Hollywood by supporting the troops." Then taking his left hand in mine, I turned it over as I held up the coin. "This is from a group of people who support the troops like you do." I closed his fingers over it and added, "Thank you so much for bucking the rest of Hollywood; I know it can't be easy. So, thank you." To my surprise, his face suddenly softened. He reached out and cupped my cheek in his free hand as I held his left in both of mine, his voice a little rough, and (I could've sworn) his eyes moist. "Thank you. Thank you so very much," he said. It took me a few minutes after that to remember that he was supposed to be a big-shot, a star, an Academy Award winner. Because in that moment he was so very real, so very human. I was completely disarmed.

Upon later thought, I remembered that Voigt had said on Hewitt he wasn't suffering in Hollywood for his support of the military. Considering his reaction to my small compliment, I must classify his radio statements as simply being gentlemanly.

If you weren't there, you'll definitely want to listen to this. A number of people on the tour were interviewed on the Hugh Hewitt Show, which broadcast from the hangar deck. I have heard them on the radio before, and came away thinking well of them. But seeing them in person adds the layer of body language, and restores the subtlety of tone and interaction that can be lost over electronic connections. Bellavia, Luttrell, Russell and others spoke on the radio and later from the platform with striking passion and clarity of vision. Not all are equally articulate, but all are possessed of a compelling earnestness that strips away obfuscation and moral ambiguity.

Another thing you won't want to miss is the speech LTC (ret) Russell gave. He's not some stuffed-shirt of an officer, but a true leader with medals for valor, and a history of being in the middle of the fight the last ten years. Listen carefully to his words from the heart about not just the war, but what America can be and what her soldiers ask of her:

And Marcus Luttrell's extemporaneous speech shone with honesty and passion. He stood on the stage backed by the SEALs who had parachuted onto the deck, all of whom he'd either served or trained with, and spoke of things that those of us who have never been in his shoes can barely wrap our minds around.

The adrenalin highlight of the evening was the SEALS parachuting onto the bow of the Midway flight deck. I was standing under the nose of the Crusader you can see in the video next to the drop zone, with most of the jumpers gliding in about 15-20 feet directly over my head. It was exhilarating!

Overall, a surprisingly emotional night. I expected flag-waving and patriotism, but came away with far more than that. Problem is, I really don't know how to express it all...

Jimbo says it well: It was amazing.