The soldier had the window seat; I had the aisle. Both of us had been upgraded to first class. Soldiers in the airport always make me emotional – something about seeing the uniform and wondering where they are going and who misses them back home. My heart skips a beat and, knowing they do what they do on my behalf, I want to thank them, but I always feel like a moron.
The soldier's buddies harassed him on their way to the back of the plane:
"Cushy seat, bro."
"Rough gig, but I guess someone's gotta do it."
"Send some drinks back to the cheap seats."
There were more than two dozen soldiers on our flight, a bunch of brave men and women who were serving our country, defending our freedom, and literally putting their lives on the line for the rest of us. Trying hard not to sound stupid, I introduced myself to the one sitting next to me, and said, "I just want to say thank you."
He was headed home, to Houston, Texas, and he was very excited to get there. I knew this because he kept repeating himself, over and over: "I just can't wait to go home."
"We were in simulated combat conditions," he told me at one point.
Like a little kid, I was intrigued. "What does that mean?"
He said, "We were in pretend camp for the last month. We were in California somewhere, but we were pretending to be in Turkey."
I asked a million questions. Basically, for thirty days they were in an area set up like wartime Turkey. I made the mistake of saying, "Did you get an In-N-Out burger? You were in California, after all." He gave me a look that said, I ate Meals Ready to Eat for thirty days in California. I'm leaving without an In-N-Out burger. Thanks for bringing it up.
He told me they had to pretend as though they were camping in a combat zone. It seemed awful. He and his partner had to make a tent using their ponchos and a cord they'd been issued. He said it got down to twenty or thirty degrees Fahrenheit at night. All they had were sleeping bags and their makeshift tent, and they weren't in their winter uniforms. Apparently they were pretend camping in summer Turkey, but it was most definitely winter wherever they were in California. He said it was so cold that just touching his M16 would burn his hands, because he didn't have gloves on.
He must've repeated six times different versions of, "I just can't tell you how glad I am that that's over, and I'm finally getting to go home for a little while."
We had a great conversation. By the end of the flight, he had downloaded the Fresh Life app on his phone. I told him how people all over the world watched and listened to our church services online. A Christian himself, he was excited to be able to go to church on his mobile device no matter where he was deployed.
We got off the plane together and parted ways. Just past security I saw him meet up with his family. His sister, dad, and mom were there. They were hugging. His sister looked so proud of her brother in uniform.
His dad instinctively grabbed his son's carry-on. On the flight, the soldier had told me that before joining the military, he had worked with his dad in the oil business. From his father's appearance, I could tell he was a hard-working, salt-of-the-earth guy. His hands seemed callous and strong. He wore dirty jeans and steel-toed boots. There was a look of pride and a glow about the entire group as they walk with their soldier toward the baggage claim area.
My bag must have passed me four times at the carousel because I couldn't walk away. I just stood there watching, fully creeper-stalking on their happy little moment.
I couldn't help but think I was seeing a real-life version of the camping analogy from 2 Corinthians:
For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven, if indeed, having been clothed, we shall not be found naked. For we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life. (2 Corinthians 5:1-4, emphasis added)
For the believer, death is the permission to put off the poncho, and the cold, and the MREs of this earth. As joyful as life can be, as much as we are thankful for all that God provides for us, it's nothing compared to what awaits us in heaven. And deep down, in the secret recesses of our soul, we know that and subconsciously crave the transcendence of heaven more than anything else.
As that soldier ached for Houston, we desire heaven. This longing is what causes each of us to be on the quest we have been on since birth. It's a hunt for happiness. A search for satisfaction. We all have an ache we can't shake. There's a groaning, a longing, as though the world were not enough.