Airline workers, of all people, should know better.
“Honor to the Soldier, and Sailor everywhere, who bravely bears his country's cause,” wrote Abraham Lincoln on December 2, 1863, in a letter to a committee organizing a recruitment event that would also celebrate recent Union victories. “Honor also,” Lincoln went on, “to the citizen who cares for his brother in the field, and serves, as he best can, the same cause – honor to him, only less than to him, who braves, for the common good, the storms of heaven and the storms of battle.”
Last week a Washington Post article by Annie Groer reported on Marine Lance Corporal Christian Brown, who lost both his legs when he stepped on a mine in Afghanistan on December 13, 2011, and has spent much of the last year at Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, learning to walk on prosthetic legs. On December 9 of this year, reported Groer, Brown, suffering from a high fever, boarded a Delta flight from Atlanta to Washington, on his way back to Walter Reed.
One might have expected the cabin crew to treat him with some dignity. When another passenger on the plane, retired Army Colonel Nickey Knighton, saw him boarding, after everyone else had been seated, she assumed he would be given a front-row seat for reasons of comfort and safety. Instead, the flight attendants wheeled Brown to a back-row seat in a clunky little wheelchair that, according to the customer-care report that a livid Knighton later submitted to the airline, “bumped up against stationary aisle seats” along the way. Brown, wrote Knighton, “was visibly upset....Tears ran down his face, but he did not cry out loud.” Two first-class passengers, observing Brown's situation, invited him to take their seats; other vets on the plane urged the Delta crew to let the injured hero take one of them up on the offer. But the flight attendants, apparently impatient to get the plane aloft, said no. Another passenger, retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Keith Gafford, told Groer that “this crew treated Chris worse than you’d treat any thing....I have seen a lot of things and have seen a lot of guys die, but I have never seen a Marine cry.” Gafford quoted Brown as saying: “I have given everything that I can give and this is the way I am being treated? This is how I will be treated for the rest of my life?”
Groer suggests that in order to avoid such situations in the future, Delta may have to puts its employees through “comprehensive sensitivity training.” It's a sad commentary on American society today that adults in positions of responsibility need to take a course to find out that you don't treat a disabled soldier that way. One recoils, however, even at the word sensitivity. Sensitivity, nothing. What about respect? What about appreciation? What, for that matter, about memory? How can people working on a passenger plane, of all things, not have a special esteem for a man who has put his life on the line, and made a major sacrifice, to help prevent another 9/11? Have they already forgotten what actually happened that day?
I only just recently caught up with a documentary that came out last year. Lt. Dan Band: For the Common Good, produced and directed by Jonathan Flora, shows us what the actor Gary Sinise, who starred in Apollo 13, won a Golden Globe for playing Harry Truman in a TV movie, and since 2004 has been a regular on CSI New York, has been doing with his spare time since 9/11. Sinise, who comes from a military family, responded to the 9/11 attacks by forming a classic-rock cover band that since 2003 has performed frequently at military installations in the U.S. and elsewhere, at military hospitals and charity benefits, and of course in Afghanistan and Iraq. The group is called Lt. Dan Band because, prior to his CSI stint, most service members didn't know his name but recognized him as Lieutenant Dan Taylor, the Oscar-nominated role he played in the 1994 movie Forrest Gump.
The film, which takes its subtitle from the Lincoln letter I quoted up front, is a mixed bag: part history of the band, part concert video, and part up-close-and-personal portrait of Sinise, whose near-reverence for American military personnel is palpable and heartening. It was his idea to make his CSI character a former Marine: “I wanted him to be a good leader,” he explains. The film is also part history, tipping its hat to Bob Hope and other top stars who entertained U.S. troops during previous wars, and reminding us of the shameful reception that many veterans received when they returned home from Vietnam. One of Sinise's goals, he says, is to help make sure that nothing like that happens to the present generation of military heroes. (Alas, if Lance Corporal Brown's experience with Delta the other day is any indication of things to come, Sinise has his work cut out for him.)
But most of all Lt. Dan Band is a tribute to the armed forces themselves – as well as to the police officers, firefighters, and other first responders who lost their lives on 9/11 and whose memory Sinise has tried to help keep alive. Jon Voight, interviewed by Flora, spells out the message: “While we may play those guys, we are not the real thing. And we need to pay our respects to the real thing.” This should, of course, be a blindingly obvious point – but in a time when Hollywood's movers and shakers tend to pay (at best) lip service to the idea of honoring our troops, and tend to see themselves as America's premier moral teachers and exemplars, it's anything but. If countless men and women in uniform are grateful to Sinise (a fact that is established beyond a doubt by the many enthusiastic audience comments Flora records), it's not just because of his music, but, even moreso, because his efforts demonstrate that he's one U.S. civilian who knows who the real heroes are – something that none of us, to be sure, whether Hollywood stars or Delta flight attendants, should have to be told.
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