They come home to cameras and flags,
balloons and poster boards.
They come home to old soldiers
in receiving lines with flags raised—
Hip Hip Hooray
old soldiers who form a gauntlet civilians hesitate to walk.
Like the mounds of dirt we skirt in a cemetery
(even after the soil settles),
we are not worthy to walk their gauntlet.
Don’t shake my hand; I only work here.
This receiving line is not for me.
And I wonder . . .
Are these new soldiers in it for the money?
Don’t hate me, I merely ask.
Serving merely for pay, says Webster,
is the definition of mercenary.
With the flag sewn backwards on their sleeves,
do they know what it means
to be in it for the money?
Sometimes they fly in alone to a girlfriend or a parent
and I wonder how they managed it.
There’s room for honest emotion
without the media attention and the old vets
who only want them to have what they didn’t have.
A mother and father wait outside the security checkpoint
with eyes fixed on the horizon of the terminal
for a glimpse of their boy.
They shyly hold two small flags,
like the ones sold on the 4th of July
that you’re supposed to—I guess—stick in the flowerbed
like an ornamental praying mantis
to show your support.
Thrust upon them like the recruiter’s handshake,
they aren’t sure what they’re supposed to do with them.
Their boy walks down the exit lane to meet them.
“Put those away,” he says. "I need a cigarette.”