Treasured Trip

On July 10, I was assigned to a mission that from the get-go was special because the chief master sergeant of the Air Force was on it. Chief Rodney McKinley had been at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, for a visit and wanted to go back on an aerovac mission to see what we do. Ours was the one he chose. I was the third technician that day, so my assigned seat was all the way forward, left side. The chief sat right next to me, and over the course of an 8-hour trip we got to talk a lot. Just as I suspected, he is a humble, down-to-earth man. It was an honor to chat it up with him. About halfway through the mission, I asked him if he collected coins. (I wanted to give him mine.) He kind of laughed and said he had about 1,300 of them. These coins are a military tradition of pride. Every squadron has its own design. They make good souvenirs. Of course, being the chief master sergeant of the Air Force, McKinley had his own coin, along with dozens of others. He pulled out a bag and showed me a handful just from the few days he had been at Ramstein. I was like a little kid looking at candy. I asked him if he had received a coin from my squadron. He said no. I always keep a squadron coin in the patch on my sleeve, so I pulled off my patch and gave it to him so he would remember our mission, which involved transporting back to the United States about 25 wounded warriors who had just come out of the war. I was putting the patch back on my arm when he said, "Wait a minute. We have to replace it. How about I give you mine? I think that’s a fair trade." He pulled out his coin and handed it to me, and for a minute I couldn't say a word. I tried not to smile too much. When we arrived at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, the load master came over to the chief and told him that there was a ramp freeze, which means no movement on the runway or taxiways. Lightning also had been sighted within five miles. After we sat a while, the load master announced over the loudspeaker that everyone needed to sit back down because we were going to be moving. Air Force One had just landed, and we were in its parking space. We all sat back down, and after about five minutes, the engines shut off. The load master came back to the chief and announced to him, "Sir, the president is coming on board." My eyes widened with amazement and disbelief. I was beginning to believe that maybe this was a false alarm and the president wasn't actually going to board. I went to the back of the jet to prepare to unload the bags and luggage. I looked out the window, and sure enough, a motorcade of black cars was coming toward us. I finished what I was doing and walked back up toward the front. President Bush came aboard. All this was totally unexpected. For the patients, it was the greatest, especially seeing all their faces light up with smiles. They, too, couldn't believe it. I can honestly say I saw firsthand the compassion of the president. I was in awe at how he went around shaking all the patients' hands and giving each of them, yes, his coin! The coin of all coins. I was so happy for them. Surrounded by Secret Service agents, Bush had his photographer take a picture of him with each excited patient. I was standing at the end of the litter stanchions, trying to stay out of the way. After all, the president was there to see the patients. Three patients were in the stanchion next to me. The patient on the bottom was sleeping, and when the president moved over to him, he said he didn't want to wake him up. He then looked over at me and asked, "Can you be sure he gets this coin?" "Yes, sir, I sure can!" I replied. He shook my hand with the coin in it. He then turned to his assistant. "Give me another one," he said. "Here, you get one, too." I couldn't believe it. The president shook my hand, put his arm around me and turned me so that we could face his photographer. We smiled for a picture, and then he looked at me and said, "Thank you for serving." By this time I could feel my face reddening. I could barely believe it. "Thank you, sir," I managed to say. "It's an honor to meet you." I completely forgot to salute him. The president then went on meeting with patients, talking with them and even sitting on the floor to take pictures with them. It was an awesome experience. The look in his eyes when he saw the critical-care patients on ventilators - it got to him. I could see his sense of hurt. It was an unforgettable moment. The president stayed aboard the jet a good 20 minutes. All of us felt the energy and motivation he left behind. I can really say that this was the highlight of my military career. To be personally thanked by the president and to receive his coin and the chief’s in the same day, I still can't believe it. I am humbled and blessed to have had such an experience and, of course, to have something to show for it.