Shaking hands

GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. -- I think I blend into the local community fairly well. As far as I can see, the only thing that gives me away is the Department of Defense sticker on my windshield and my Michigan license plate. But on a recent trip to town, I realized there was something more significant and slightly less tangible that sets me and my fellow Airmen apart.

As expeditionary Airmen, we are the news the local community, nation and world see on television and read in newspapers. I can go to any unit on this base and talk to any random Airmen, and chances are, I'll be talking to someone who's traveled to the other side of the world to be part of something greater than themselves.

That Airman was likely attacked while he did his part to defend his country. Perhaps he drove a convoy to support our sister service, wondering every day if he would make it to the end of the road without being the next news story his parents saw.

Perhaps that Airman flew a 50-year-old aircraft across the ocean to support the airpower that takes out those enemies of freedom who try to kill America's bravest.

That "random" Airman might have deployed as a medic and treated the river of wounded Iraqis that steadily pour into war zone hospitals. As one of too few medics, they fight daily, to save lives -- not caring if the patient is an honest civilian or insurgent.

Wherever they deploy, they go without complaint. Leaving families and safety on the other side of the airport gate, they go to war with their combat and professional skills and focus on the mission until they pass back through that gate again.

These Airmen are everywhere on base. Some wear bright purple ribbons at the top of their decorations on their service dress. Most, however, have no outward token of their sacrifice, but you can see something different about them in the way they talk and the pride in their bearing.

My recent trip to town reminded me that I am one of these Airmen, too. As I stood waiting for my table in a restaurant, I wore no military items but somehow I stood out. When a couple came up, shook my hand and thanked me for my sacrifice, I knew I was changed. I, too, am a Warrior Airman, and I feel proud to work among my fellow Warriors every day.

As combat Airmen at war, we are the levy that keeps our loved ones safe. I now feel I need to shake more hands and thank my fellow Airmen for their sacrifice, since, chances are, that hand I shake has been in combat.