(The following story was written by a 31-year-old California native who is now a teacher in Alabama and the wife of a serviceman.)
It could have been any night of the week, as I sat in one of those loud and casual steak houses that are cropping up all over the country. You know the type...a bucket of peanuts on the table, shells littering the floor, and a bunch of perky college kids racing around with long neck beers and sizzling platters.
Taking a sip of my iced tea, I studied the crowd over the rim of my glass. I let my gaze linger on a few of the tables next to me, where several uniformed military members were enjoying their meals.
Smiling sadly, I glanced across my booth to the empty seat where my husband usually sat. Had it had only been a few weeks since we had sat at this very table talking about his upcoming deployment to the Middle East? He made me promise to come back to this restaurant once a month, sit in our booth, and treat myself to a nice dinner.
He told me that he would treasure the thought of me there eating a steak and thinking about him until he came home. I fingered the little flag pin I wear on my jacket and wondered where at that moment he was. Was he safe and warm? Was his cold any better? Were any of my letters getting to him?
As I pondered all of these things, female voices from the next booth broke into my thoughts.
"I don't know what Bush is thinking invading Iraq...attacking another nation without provocation. There never were any weapons of mass destruction."
I cut into my steak and tried not to listen as they began an endless tirade of running down our president. I thought about the last night I was with my husband as he prepared to deploy. He had just returned from getting his smallpox and anthrax shots and the image of him standing in our kitchen packing his gas mask still gave me chills. Once again their voices invaded my thoughts.
"It is all about oil, you know. Thousands of Iraqi civilians were killed or maimed, not to mention the many American servicemen who are dying every day."
My chest tightened and I stared at my wedding ring. I could picture how handsome my husband was in his mess dress the day he slipped it on my finger. I wondered what he was wearing at that moment. He probably had on his desert uniform, affectionately dubbed coffee stains, over the top of which he wore a heavy bulletproof vest.
"We should just leave Iraq alone. Those weapons never existed. Iraq had nothing to do with 9-11. What happened to the hunt for Bin Laden? Bush forgot about him. I think it is all a ploy to increase the president's popularity and pad the budget of our military at the expense of social security and education."
Their words brought to mind the war protesters I had watched gathering outside our base. Did no one appreciate the sacrifice of brave men and women who leave their homes and family to ensure our freedom? I glimpsed at the tables around me and saw the faces of some of those courageous men, looking sad as they listened to the ladies talk.
"Well, I for one, think it is a travesty to invade Iraq and I am certainly sick of $87 billion of our tax dollars going over there. There were babies killed in the bombing of Iraq. I saw it on that foreign cable channel."
Baby killers? As I thought about what a wonderful father my husband is and wondered how long it would be before he was able to see his children again, indignation rose up within me.
Normally reserved, pride in my husband gave me a boldness I had never known. Tonight, one voice would cry out on behalf of the military. One shy woman would stand and let her pride in our troops be known. I made my way to their table, placed my palms flat on it and lowered myself to be eye level with them.
Smiling I said, "I couldn't help overhearing your conversation. I am sitting over here trying to enjoy my dinner alone. Do you know why I am alone? Because my husband, whom I love dearly, is halfway across the world defending your right to say rotten things about him. You have the right to your opinion, and what you think is none of my business, but what you say in my hearing is and I will not sit by and listen to you run down my country, my president, my husband, and all these other fine men and women in here who put their lives on the line to give you the freedom to complain. Freedom is expensive, ladies, don't let your actions cheapen it."
I must have been louder than I meant to be, because about that time the manager came over and asked if everything was all right. "Yes, thank you." I replied and then turned back to the ladies, "Enjoy the rest of your meal."
Not long after the ladies picked up their check and scurried away, the manager brought me a huge double helping of apple cobbler and ice cream, compliments of the table to my left. I was so upset that I ate the whole thing.
I turned to thank the soldiers for the cobbler, but they wouldn't hear a word of it, retorting, "Thank you, you said what we wanted to say but weren't allowed."
As I drove home that night, for the first time in while, I didn't feel quite so alone. My heart was filled with the warmth of all the patrons who had stopped by my table to tell me they too were proud of my husband and that he would be in their prayers. I knew their flags would fly a little higher the next day. Perhaps they would look for tangible ways to show their pride in our country and our troops, and maybe, just maybe, the two ladies sitting at that table next to me would pause for a minute to appreciate all the freedom this great country offers and what it costs to maintain. As for me, I had learned that one voice can make a difference. Maybe the next time protesters gather outside the gates of the base where I live, I will proudly stand across the street with a sign of my own. A sign that says "Thank you!"