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Remembering our veterans

F.E. Warren AFB, Wyo. -- Everyone has an incident that changes the way they feel or touches their heart in a way that can never be forgotten. 

Like a lot of us in the military, I've worked part-time in various jobs to earn a little extra money. While stationed at McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., and living in a small town, I chose to work in the town café as a waitress. I have always loved being around people and felt this was a good way to get to know them. 

One spring Sunday morning there was an elderly couple and a middle-aged woman seated in my station. As I walked over to hand them their menus, I couldn't help but notice the elderly man had a prosthetic arm that had a hook on the end; one that likely had been attached to his body for years. He also proudly wore a retiree ball cap specifying that he was a World War II veteran. 

As I asked them what they would like to drink, I couldn't help but study this man before me. He was quiet and kind, but he had a presence about him that was inspiring. He removed himself from the table to use the restroom, and I went over to the table and asked the elderly woman, "I know this must be personal but did he lose his arm in the war?" 

She was silent for a moment. At first I thought I had offended her, but then she looked up at me with such love in her eyes for her husband, and she said to me as tears began to emerge, "Yes, my husband lost his arm in the war. He was one of the first platoon boats to hit Omaha Beach during the invasion. He was struck by enemy fire from machine guns seconds after hitting the beach. The battle was so devastating and horrific with so many young Soldiers being killed and wounded that he continued to fight for three days before he was ever seen by a medic." 

At this point, the gentleman returned to his seat at the table. As I began to ask for their order, I had to acknowledge this hero before me. As I fought tears back, I looked him straight in the eye and said, "Sir, ... it is my honor and privilege today to wait on you, and I just want you to know that I thank you, I truly do, for the sacrifice that you made for me and the rest of the country that day on Omaha Beach. It's men like you that have continued to make this the greatest nation in the world to live in and even though it's a small token, I would be privileged to buy your family breakfast this morning. It's my way of telling you thank you for what you did for me." 

This wonderful man, this hero sitting before me, began to weep, and he looked up at me with saddened eyes and said "Young lady, that is the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me since the war and that was over 50 years ago. I never wanted medals, money or fame; I just wanted people to be thankful for all the sacrifices and lives that were given that day on that beach so long ago. It is so gratifying to know that you care and for that it makes it all worth it." 

I didn't know how to respond. This man had lost his arm, been handicapped all his life since that day, and his only wish was that people remembered, remembered what he and thousands of other young service members did that day for their country and the pain they've lived with for years. That was a moment in my memory that changed me forever. 

I've always been a proud American, but meeting this hero on that spring Sunday morning seven years ago made me stand a little taller, made me put on my uniform with a little more pride, and made me realize that the minute we quit thanking and remembering all our fallen Soldiers, we will lose the reason we are all members of the armed forces. 

As his family left the café that morning, we all hugged and cried, yet I never knew his name. As I prepared for sleep, for the first time in years I found myself kneeling next to my bed praying. I prayed for this man. With the thought of not ever asking his name, it dawned on me, I knew his name all along; it's the same name all my fallen comrades and war veterans hold. His name was courage, honor and love for his country but most of all, his name was core values and everything they stand for, the one name we seem to forget a lot these days. 

It has been a long time since that brief moment I spent in that café long ago with a man, who's only wish after all his pain was a simple thank you. Since that day my only wish is for that man to understand he changed my life forever, and because of meeting him I am forever a better Airman.