Rain soaked the flight line on the first day, forcing the opening ceremonies into a cavernous airplane hangar. Service members-some in uniform and others in civvies and accompanied by their families-and journalists watched honor guards from each service parade piecemeal into the hangar and take their places in formation. Then senior military personnel marched in and stood at attention by their seats at the fore of the audience and facing the troops, and waited for the ranking officials to walk in. But, nobody came for 20 minutes. Finally, the troops got the signal to snap to attention, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Meyers, entered the hangar, took his place at the podium, had his say, and then introduced Secretary of Defense Donald Rums feld. Once the Secretary made his remarks welcoming everyone to the event, he stepped into the crowd and glad-handed.
People swarmed around Rumsfeld like he was a rock star. Men jammed their hands into his for a drive-by handshake, photographers elbowed their way to the front of the crowd like defensive backs trying to strip a photo op from the competition, and young women giggled about how they lost their words when confronted with their one chance to make a passing remark to him. Eventually, Rumsfeld's aides cleared an escape route to his car, and he left. And with all the jostling and gee-whiz that buzzed about him, what stood out for me about the man? Oddly enough, it's that he's much shorter than I expected
Great weather prevailed over the rest of the weekend. Performances by the Air Force's Thunderbirds and their F-16s, flybys of the B-2 stealth bomber, a parachute drop by the 82nd Airborne Division, and other aerial attractions adorned the clear blue sky like ornaments on a Christmas tree. Ground displays of airplanes and helicopters scattered across the flightline like half-opened presents. I suspect that the Heroes truck drew just as much attention as the military hardware arrayed around it. Jon Watts demoed the truck by turning its engine on and off, lifting and lowering the body, and cranking the stereo when power permitted. Jon, Mickey, and Dale signed posters of the truck for passersby. Waves of gratitude washed across the three of them as grateful servicemen, moved by the patriotic theme of the truck, shook their hands, and showered them with coins bearing their unit seals and hard-won combat medals. Meanwhile, Dale continuously insisted that the honor was all his-a constant refrain that almost reduced him to tears.
We see so many custom trucks in this line of work that it's easy to get jaded. I still grapple with the "why" behind the upwelling of emotion toward this truck. Not even reaching back to my time in the military helps me to truly grasp it. Maybe it's this: While war inflames the passions of the American people for or against the merits of its endeavor, the military silently waits. And if they get the word, each service member must pocket their own fears or misgivings and go to work. They are the rubber that meets the road, and it's a long, hard road that lies before them. The Heroes truck chronicles their journey, and says thanks.