A special moment in Las Vegas

The Mountain West Conference college basketball tournament in Las Vegas is always a fun event, and Susan and I were able to join other family members at the Thomas & Mack Center this year for three days of college hoops.

We enjoyed the efforts of the Wyoming Cowboys and Cowgirls, the spirited rivalries among top seeds New Mexico, San Diego State and UNLV and the general atmosphere at the arena, with UNLV fans singing their trademark “Re-bles, Re-bles” answered by the “woof, woof, woof” of New Mexico Lobo fans.

David Peck

Both groups were there in droves, along with many SDSU and Wyoming fans, a contingent of TCU fans, a smattering of Colorado State fans and a few Air Force supporters.

It was all great fun.

But perhaps the best moment of our trip took place Sunday on our way home. Susan and I were waiting at the gate at McCarran International Airport for our flight to Denver when we noticed a mother and three children approach the desk bearing posters and balloons. They were clearly waiting for someone who was on the flight soon to arrive.

Looking at the welcome home posters and overhearing the conversation, we realized we were about to see something commonplace but yet special.

A soldier was coming home.

We heard the wife say she hadn’t spoken to her husband in a week and hoped he had made his connections and was on the arriving flight, and she dabbed tears from her eyes as passenger after passenger came down the jetway and emerged from the doorway. A look of nervous excitement was on the faces of the kids.

No arrival yet.

A buzz went through the crowd as word spread of the expected serviceman’s arrival, but still he didn’t arrive. More waiting, more nervous moments. We all craned our necks to watch.

And then it happened. A tall young man in fatigues emerged through the doorway, and the waiting area erupted in applause.

The woman threw her arms around her man, an older boy was fighting back tears, a middle boy gave Dad a bear hug that I thought would choke him and then the most special moment: a little girl hugged her dad’s neck bearing the biggest smile I’ve ever seen.

Forget the commercials. That was priceless.

I have no idea who they were or where the soldier was serving. I don’t know if he had been in harm’s way or had a desk job in Germany. But clearly he had been gone a long time – and his family missed him.

There have been emotional scenes like this as long as there have been soldiers returning home. In this case there were no TV cameras, just a family with balloons and posters, tears and smiles. And an appreciative public.

What struck me the most was the reaction of the crowd of airline passengers – a spontaneous, heartfelt applause.

How different it was than the reception many Vietnam veterans received when they returned home in the 1960s and ’70. How marvelous for this soldier and his family.

There seems to be a growing war weariness spreading across our nation after 11 years of fighting in Afghanistan and almost as many years in Iraq. But unlike Vietnam, people aren’t taking out their frustrations against the soldiers, who are simply serving their country and often facing many dangers.

On that Sunday, one family in Las Vegas, at least, experienced the appreciation of the American people, a bunch of strangers in an airport, yes, but surely a cross section of America — proud citizens who felt a bond with that family of five and what they sacrificed.

Forget the basketball. That was special.