Soldiers, Drinks, and My Messy Thank You

It was a few hour ride back from the show in the farmlands of Pennsylvania.
I was dirty, sweaty, sore, tired, and enthused with the amazing support we got from all our fans at the festival.
By the time I got to the hotel by the airport I was ready to hit the cool of the backside of the pillow.
Walking into the lobby I was greeted by about 20 soldiers, fresh off a tour. They were still in fatigues, mostly women, giggling, talking on their cell phones, and looking like they would rather be no place else.
“Where you guys coming in from?” I asked.
“Eighteen Mother $@!@$$% months in Afghanistan” one of the soldiers replied.
“I get to see my baby tomorrow.” he said.
“Well dude, thanks for doing that. I have no idea what that even looks like, but I’m pretty sure it makes what I do look like preschool” I said as I walked towards the elevator.
Room 618
I was about to turn on Sports Center when I thought, I wonder if those guys will be in the bar?
So down I went.
And when I walked into the bar in the lobby, the platoon of soldiers had morphed from 15ish to about 40.
Some were fresh and out of their fatigues, some not. The thought occurred to me to just sit back at a bar table and watch them celebrate from afar.
Then I remembered that I am Carlos Whittaker and I can’t not join the party.

There was one stool.
Right between 2 soldiers.
I squeezed right in.
They both looked at me like…”Really?”
I looked back like…”Yup. :)”
“Where is home?” I asked.
“California. I haven’t seen my babies in 18 months. I can’t wait.”
Sam was his name. And we proceeded to dive into an amazing conversation about his time in Afghanistan. On the other side of me Rachel chimed in.
“Did you know that we didn’t have one drink the whole time we were there? Since I don’t have any kids this mojito is like my kid I couldn’t wait to see”
We started laughing and chatted for the better part of an hour.

Soon after an older guy, who I assume was the leader dude (military ignorant here) stood up.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I just want to thank you for serving your country. It has been my honor to serve alongside you this past year and a half and I’d do it again if ever asked. I love you guys that much. You are heroes! Here Here!!!”
“Here Here!” they all shouted back…along with me.

Something strange was stirring inside me as his little speech was delivered.
I was smack dab in the middle of a group of soldiers who were on the other side of the country doing things I will never know while I was moaning and complaining about being too hot as I got to sing in front of 60,000 people earlier today.

As soon as the cheering stopped for the captain, sergeant, ring leader, old guy with swag, it happened.
I don’t know how.
I don’t know why.
I didn’t even feel my butt rising off my bar stool.

“Attention! Hello! Over Here!”
I found myself standing on the lower ring of my bar stool.
40 plus soldiers staring me straight in the face.
Dead. Silent.
I had no idea what I was about to say.
I don’t remember exactly what I said.
But it was something to this effect…
“Listen friends. You don’t know me. I don’t know you. I just spent an hour talking with Sam and Rachel about your lives the last 18 months. I have no idea how hard it was for you. So I don’t even think a THANK YOU would be adequate. But I do know one thing. Today I spent the day singing songs with my band in front of thousands of people. We were singing about God. They were singing about God. It was amazing.
I don’t know what God you believe in. I don’t know if you even believe in a God. But I do know this.
That I was able to sing to my God today because of what you are doing. I have the freedom to stand on a stage, outside, and tell the world that I love my God.
And this is because you guys left your homes, families, friends, and comforts, so that I could have mine.
So since I stood on a stage today pronouncing the love for my God, because you let me…
I stand on this stage right now, before you, pronouncing my love and honor and respect I have for you.
So thank you.
I don’t say it enough, if ever, but thank you from the bottom of this lead singers heart.
You move me to be a better man.
God bless you guys.”
At the end of my mess of a speech the room was filled with hoots, hollers, cheers, and some chant I could not join in on because I am not in that club.
“HERE HERE!!” I screamed.
“HERE HERE!!” they all screamed back.
It was amazing.
They were hugging me and saying thanks when something else rose up in me.

“HEY! HEY!!! LISTEN UP!!! ONE MORE THING!!!”
Silence…
Silence…
“The Next Round’s On ME!!!!!!!”
RRRRRROOOOOOAAAAAAARRRRRRRRR!
I swear they almost lifted me up.
I was passed around like a pinball in the late 70’s.
Drinks flowed.
Laughter occurred.
Hugs were passed.
I never thought once about the bill.
Honestly.
I had 200 bucks in cash in my wallet from some CD’s I sold.
As the night slowed down the bartender handed me my tab.
196 bucks.
He looked at me and said…
“They could have made you a broke man tonight…but they all, every single one, asked what the most inexpensive beer was. And they ordered that one. They received your act of class with an act of class themselves.”

The bartender, who I’m halfway convinced was some form of Yoda reincarnated for just that moment, was right.
They basically class juked me.
They one upped me.
Because that is who they are.

As I was walking to the elevator Rachel came running up to me…
“No one remembers us. We feel forgotten. Thank you for not forgetting us. Thanks for sitting with us. We are you. You are us. Thank you”

With that I got on the elevator, pressed the number 6, prayed the elevator door would shut so I could be alone, then cried all the way up 6 floors.

I couldn’t afford that round of drinks, but I feel like they couldn’t afford to not have it bought for them.
It was a top 5 life moment for me.
Happy 4th of July ragamuffins.
Thank that old man who wears that trucker hat with his Navy numbers on it for his gift to you today.
It’s better that way.
Los