Military and civilian worlds meet at airport
Service members make their way through the atrium at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.Sara Koniar puts down her lunch, jumps to her feet and joins her hands together in thundering applause as men and women in uniform file past her at the Atlanta airport.
The soldiers and sailors wear game faces that hide anxiety and backpacks that weigh down shoulders. They must be heading back to war, Koniar says.
The Franklin, Wisconsin, resident rarely comes face to face with a soldier. She doesn't have relatives serving. Nor does she live in a military town.
Here, at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Koniar seizes her opportunity to show appreciation.
"They deserve it for everything they are doing," she says.
Koniar is hardly alone in that sentiment, though millions of Americans find themselves detached from the lives of service men and women.
Fewer than 1% of Americans serve in the military today, compared to 4% who served in Vietnam or 12% in World War II.
Despite the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, most Americans are not likely to know the agony of separation or the uncertainty of the battlefield, the disconnect so severe that it prompted Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to recently say: "Someday, the American people may no longer know us."
But the airport is different, and it has become a forum of sorts for Americans to interact with the military.
Thousands of Americans remain deployed overseas and when they return home for leave, they come through two airports: Everyone going west of the Mississippi flies to Dallas and those with homes east of the river travel through Atlanta.
Over the years, an airport etiquette has emerged that says: You may not like the war, but do like the warrior.
Take Bobby Segal of Concord, New Hampshire. He, like Koniar, rarely meets soldiers in his hometown. But on this spring day, when the sun is bursting through the Atlanta airport atrium, Segal pauses as he walks by two soldiers seated at a counter of the Atlanta Bread Company.
"Thank you for your service," he says, heading to the security line. It's the very least he can do.
Sgt. First Class Chad Walker nods. It's great to get a pat on the shoulder, he says.
Next to him, Spc. Crystal Sims is still savoring a breakfast of biscuits, gravy and bacon from Paschal's southern food. When she got out her wallet to pay, the man behind the register told her to put it away. A security guard at the airport had already taken care of it.
Only 21 and on her first deployment to Afghanistan, Sims felt special.
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