Last February, when a friend started a year-long assignment working with the Marines in Okinawa, Japan, we started talking about my visiting her. In June, I purchased my ticket to fly to Okinawa for Thanksgiving.
I live in an area with a relatively low concentration of military personnel, but once I started thinking of this trip I began to notice people in uniform.
A recent work meeting at a local restaurant started with my colleague whispering something to the server. I didn’t pay too much attention to this exchange until a little later, when a man in uniform came to our table and said, “Thank you, sir.”
My colleague replied, “Thank you for your service.” He had quietly picked up the tab for this serviceman. Tears filled my eyes. My father was a veteran, as is my older brother. I grew up during the Vietnam War, and I knew people who served. Military service can be an emotional subject for me.
A few weeks before my scheduled trip to Okinawa, my friend called and asked if I wanted to help serve Thanksgiving dinner to the Marines on her base. “Heck, yeah,” I replied with unbridled enthusiasm. She signed us up for an afternoon of serving.
Camp Hansen is home to thousands of Marines on Okinawa. My friend’s unit has something to do with artillery, but I was not interested in the details of their work. I only wanted to serve those who are serving. I wanted to say “thank you” as my colleague had done at that restaurant.
The Thanksgiving feast was held at the USO on base, where long tables were set with platters of turkey and a variety of side dishes. Different parts of the States were represented in dishes like green beans with chunks of pork, macaroni and cheese, and Jello salad—plus the usual mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy and rolls. A steady stream of Marines came through the line and we exchanged Happy Thanksgiving wishes as we served.
At one point, a young Marine came to our side of the table to serve. He stood beside me, ramrod straight, and dished out turkey to his fellow Marines. During a lull in serving, I tried to engage him in conversation by asking about the basketball game playing on a television across the hall. “I don’t really like basketball, ma’am,” he said.
“What sports do you like?” I asked.
“Football and hockey, ma’am.”
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“I am from Detroit,” I said. “I think your football team played in Detroit this week because of the snow.”
He said, “Yes, ma’am,” but something had changed. His eyes sparkled and he was smiling; he had softened, as if had stepped out of his formal Marine persona and into his sports-loving self.
With great enthusiasm, he went on to tell me he had watched the game and how his team had painted our field and beat the New York Jets—a double victory in his eyes.
At that moment, I wanted to call his mother and tell her that her son was ok, that he was still watching his beloved sports teams and hoping for winning seasons—that he still loved what he loved.
I don’t expect the Marines I served to remember me, but I will long remember them and this unique opportunity to say “thanks.