Not long ago during this same time of the year, I had a very memorable chance encounter. Being in the non-Grinch mood for giving, I decided to blow the budget and take my wife out for a dinner-date cooked by someone else.

Not having delicate palates and enjoying food tasting nearly like home, we made our choice.

The “crackle” of the fire in the fireplace and the “barrel” of selections on the menu assured us that we had made the right decision. The relics on the walls and ceiling reminded us “we’ve come a long way, baby.” We had to admit that a few of these relics, just a few, brought back fond memories of days gone by.

As we patiently sat on this rare but joyous occasion, with saliva glands pulsating in anticipation, a large group of soldiers walked by the windows. Had we not been in America, the possibility of invasion or worse would have crossed my mind. But no matter our creative interpretation, my wife and I could never fit under the table anyway. So we bravely sat and awaited our fate.

As the group began to file in, they numbered around 20. These young soldiers were in transit from Fort Knox to a base in Maryland. They were “spit-polish” neat. Dress green uniforms were properly fitted, ties neatly tied, shoes mirror polished, and their body language was one of pride and accomplishment.

Not being able to sit all together, they were divided into small groups of four. A quartet of these “America’s pride” were seated beside us. Their exemplary manners and conduct spoke volumes of their training and discipline.

Just being next to these protectors of the peace caused me to sit a little taller and feel a special gratitude for them. They were from myriad nationalities, races, and religions. Some were short, while others were taller. Some were muscular, while others were thinner. But all of these young men radiated confidence and self-esteem.

The unbreakable bond that fused them together was their dedication to duty and love of country. We would have gladly paid the price of an uneaten meal and been honored just to sit beside them.

One Vietnam veteran came to their table inquiring of their travel plans and destination. He told them he was proud of them and wished them well. Another veteran came by and told them of his pride in them. They must have been traveling by bus, and one soldier asked where they were. He was soon informed he was in the middle of Mountaineer country.

As I proudly observed these soldiers, my mind raced and my heart filled with gratitude and pride. What if there were no soldiers? Would my wife and I be free to go on a “bust the budget” date? (There may be snow on the roof, but a few smoldering embers remain in the furnace.)

Would we be free to drive anywhere without the fear of attack or robbery? Would our children and grandchildren be able to go to school without the fear of abduction? Would we be free to worship when and where we choose? Would we be free to speak in opposition to governmental policies? I think the answer to these questions is a resounding NO.

These soldiers, just out of basic training, portrayed to me all that is right, honorable, patriotic and beautiful in America. They were my America in bodily form. Their conduct made me proud to be an American. If and when called upon to protect and defend our land, I’m quite sure they would perform their allotted task with heart, might and duty. We are in good hands!

Wishing to be Mountaineer friendly and ignoring my wife’s advice to the contrary (as usual), I went to their table upon leaving. I first expressed my pride and gratitude for their dedication and service. My comments were met with “yes, sir;” “no, sir” and “thank you.” I wished them Merry Christmas and told them I hoped they would get home over the holidays.

I do not know the name of even one of these fine young soldiers. I will never see them again. But on the page in my memory book entitled “America,” I will often recall the quartet of soldiers and the lasting impression they made upon me. Wherever their duty leads them, whether in peace or war, I will pray for the safety of these unknown soldiers and hope my heartfelt gratitude and respect will linger in a dusty corner of their memories.

May God guide, protect and encourage all these guardian angels who proudly protect and defend our beloved land of the free. And by their brave efforts and sacrifices, may God continue to bless America.

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