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I was 18, stuck in a seedy bus station in an unfamiliar town trying to get back to my base during a snow storm. I knew nobody there, but made pointed eye contact with a few other tired servicemen laying on their green duffel bags. It made me feel less alone.
One of them approached me and asked if I'd watch his bags while he went to get something to eat. Without hesitation I slid my belongings over to his and sat cross legged in the floor.
Not much time had passed before I heard a man shouting, "You're all nothing but a bunch of brainwashed baby killers! You do nothing for this country, it's a shit show! Robots with weapons!"
And on. And on. And on.
Come to find out, what set this patriot off was that my 'friend' made the line for the vending machine one person longer. God forbid.
As he continued his angry rant, flailing his arms, eyes bulging with what was undoubtedly too much alcohol, the duffel bag carriers edged closer to each other on the dirty tiles. We didn't know what to do; most of us were fresh out of high school, not long out of basic, and had never been confronted like this before. We were used to a polite, "Thank you for your service, where are you from?" not being deemed as mindless, trigger happy government resources.
Surrounded by civilians obviously waiting for us to retaliate, we kept our composure with a maturity that this man didn't possess. All different branches huddled on the floor, quietly spitting words we didn't want nearby children to hear.
What kept this day in my memories was not the taunts of a drunk, but a few hours later when a man approached me and an airmen female that were still there. He looked like a straggly Liam Neeson, with maybe six teeth and clothes that hadn't seen a washing machine in weeks.
He was also a guardian angel in disguise.
After making himself known to not be a threat, we talked with him a little while about what brought him to the station. He made a living selling pirated movies and was using his income to go see his brother in a different state for his birthday. His smile was genuine and when he laughed it was infectious, making us forget our own worries.
This stranger walked with us to a nearby gas station so we could get food without being harassed, and later that evening he sat sleeping upright against the door leading downstairs to a basement that was opened for females and children to sleep. It was locked from the outside, so whenever anyone had to use the bathroom they would knock; he would let them out and make sure they got back safely, only to lock it again behind them.
The next morning before we departed paths he shook our hands, thanked us for our service, and got on his bus. The person thankful for our service was the person life had not been as kind to.
I never forgot his selflessness. He did not ask for anything of us in return, did not ask us once if we had ever killed anyone, never look at us judgingly for our profession, and never even jokingly referred to us as 'brainwashed.'
He was simply a human looking out for other humans, as it should be.
Whenever someone has thanked me for my service after that day, an image of his six-toothed smile flashes in my mind, and all I can say is thank you.