E-mail tale of U.S. troops fills hearts and inboxes

November 09, 2003|By DAN RODRICKS

FRIDAY morning, with news of another helicopter crash and six more U.S. soldiers killed in the bloodiest week in Iraq for Americans since the fall of Baghdad, Will Ross's little story popped up on scores of computer screens throughout the nation.

Ross had written the story a week earlier -- a short narrative of his experience among troops traveling home from Iraq through Baltimore-Washington International Airport -- and it quickly became an Internet chain letter that countless people felt the need to share with friends.

Ross, an administrative judge with the Department of Defense's Office of Hearings and Appeals in Los Angeles, had been in Maryland to attend a conference in Annapolis. He was supposed to return to L.A. on Sunday, Oct. 26, but United Airlines had to cancel his flight out of BWI. The fires that had swept across Southern California played havoc with air-traffic control and forced the closing of airports on the West Coast.

"My story begins the next day," Ross wrote in a "letter to family and friends" after he returned to California. "When I went to check in at the United counter I saw a lot of soldiers home from Iraq. Most were very young and all had on their desert camouflage uniforms. ... It was a visible reminder that we are in a war. It probably was pretty close to what train terminals were like in World War II."

Since September, the international terminal at BWI has been a point of re-entry for troops on leave from duty in Iraq. Dozens of them fly into the airport each day, where they meet relatives and friends or take connecting flights home. Dozens more come through BWI on their way back to active duty. (Will Ross, reached Friday while on vacation in Arizona, is a frequent flier through BWI.)

"Many people were stopping the troops to talk to them, asking them questions in the Starbucks line or just saying, `Welcome home,'" Ross' narrative went on. "In addition to all the flights that had been canceled on Sunday, the weather was terrible in Baltimore and the flights were backed up. So, there were a lot of unhappy people in the terminal trying to get home."

"By the afternoon, one plane to Denver had been delayed several hours. United personnel kept asking for volunteers to give up their seats and take another flight. They weren't getting many takers."

But that was when a United customer service representative -- later identified by her BWI boss as Marsha Stein -- got on the public address phone. Stein and another rep, Winston Townes, have been focused on seeing that the soldiers move quickly through BWI and get on their way to some R&R.

`"Folks,'" Ross quoted Stein -- accurately, her boss, Jim Drain, told me -- as telling the travelers, "`As you can see, there are a lot of soldiers in the waiting area. They only have 14 days of leave, and we're trying to get them where they need to go without spending any more time in an airport than they have to.'

`"We sold them all tickets, knowing we would oversell the flight. If we can, we want to get them all on this flight. We want all the soldiers to know that we respect what you're doing, we are here for you and we love you.'

"At that," Ross reported, "the entire terminal of cranky, tired, travel-weary people, a cross-section of America, broke into sustained and heartfelt applause. The soldiers looked surprised and very modest. Most of them just looked at their boots. Many of us were wiping away tears.

"And, yes, people lined up to take the later flight and all the soldiers went to Denver on that flight. ... That little moment made me proud to be an American."

Grumpy old men

Here's what I make of Peter Angelos, William Donald Schaefer and their pals taking shots at Martin O'Malley: They're grumpy senior citizens annoyed that the young mayor doesn't slip under their table at D'Alesio's and shine their shoes.

And what was that Angelos said about O'Malley the other day? He said: "Vendettas and personal tantrums are inappropriate for the leader of the city of Baltimore." What planet was Petros on when Don Donaldo was mayor? Give me a break.

A Little mistake

I guess I'm glad Lee Mazzilli is Orioles manager. I wish him well. But, tell you the truth, I was rooting for Eddie to get the job. Oh, well, maybe next year. (Just kidding!)

At one point, I heard Mike Flanagan and Jim Beattie were talking to Stuart Little about being manager. And I thought to myself: That can't be right. Can't have a mouse managing grown men 'cuz they might step on him in the dugout.

But joke's on me! It was Grady Little they were talking to! Ha! Anyway, so now they have Mazzilli, and I'd just like to point out that the man is Italian-American, and the last time the Orioles had an Italian-American manager, we won the big one. You can look it up.

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