I met Brian Miller and his girlfriend, Rachael, a few weeks ago on a Caribbean cruise I took with my mom.
Before I even noticed Brian's leg, I was struck by the obvious adoration between this couple from Harrisburg, PA. Rachael just glowed in Brian’s presence and seemed to have a protective nature about her. Brian definitely looked like a man in love, but there was also a certain sadness and hesitation about him.
They were both settled into sun chairs on the pool deck when I first saw them. A few minutes later when he moved his beach towel, I saw Brian’s leg. It was a curious contraption of metal and sockets with a brown sandal fixed to a plastic bare foot.
My mom and I happened to be sitting poolside a few chairs from Brian’s when the cruise director announced a "Mr. Sexy Legs" competition. I had no sooner turned to my mom to tell her that I hoped Brian would enter when I saw Rachael encouraging him to put his name on the list. He kept shaking it off, but Mom and I supported Rachel with a “thumbs up” and vigorous motioning for him to get up. Reluctantly, Brian put his name on the list and got in line.
We watched several men strut their stuff down the deck. Some were funny, some were embarrassing, but none of them had the impact that Brian did when he his walk began. At well over 6 feet tall I imagine that Brian probably wasn’t very graceful on two legs, but as he made his way down the deck with his newly learned gait, he became more beautiful with each stride.
Almost everyone on the pool deck stood and cheered for him and people were lined up against the upper deck railing, most of them with their hands in the air clapping for Brian!
At that moment Brian was our friend, our son, our brother, our husband. He was every soldier who didn’t come home and every soldier who was still there fighting.
We all wiped away tears as he made his way over to where Rachael was sitting and gave her a big kiss before getting back in line to await the judge’s decision. I spoke with Rachael as we were waiting and she told me that Brian had lost his leg only seven months ago and that he was still insecure about learning how to move around in his prosthetic leg, which he got for Christmas. An Army cavalry scout, he was wounded while on duty in Iraq last summer. His leg remained intact, but an infection set in and the leg was amputated. This cruise was Rachael's way of celebrating how far Brian had come and to lift his spirits.
What we originally thought would be good for Brian, turned out to be an amazing lesson for all of us watching. We saw a hero whose bravery had remained strong through the physical battlefield of Iraq and through the emotional battlefield of recovery. His heroism inspired in us a new appreciation for the price of freedom. We shed tears as this American hero took several steps toward healing himself, but what we didn’t count on was that with each step he took, something in all of our hearts began to heal as well.
Many of us were brought face to face with the silliness of our own insecurities as we watched this soldier face his in a big way. After what we saw on that day how could any of us ever again say that we can’t do something out of fear or because of the risk of embarrassment? Courage inspires courage.
Many men in the audience were veterans of past wars. Their bodies bore the scars that told the stories of the price of freedom in their own lives. Gray-headed wives stood beside these men, their scars of worry were better concealed but still as painful. Like so many intangibles the bond between people who have gone through similar tragedies is as evident when they talk to each other as it would be if they were tied together by a big unbreakable rope. When you witness people with this kind of bond, it is undeniable. It is also essential to our emotional well- being to relate to other people on the deep level of shared experiences.
Hearing “I’ve been there son” from war veterans must have soothed a part of Brian like nothing else could.
Brian received a medal that day for winning the "Mr. Sexy Leg" contest, but his biggest gift was being embraced by an audience whose appreciation was evident in their glistening eyes, their standing ovations, their hugs and handshakes. In the middle of the Caribbean Sea amidst steel drum bands and umbrella drinks, I watched a broken man be put back together one "thank you" at a time and I watched a hero make better Americans of us all.
The change in Brian was immediately noticeable. Over the next few days I rarely saw him alone. He was always greeted with handshakes and engaged in conversation. That hesitancy that I had seen in him before was replaced by a broad smile, a head held high and what looked like pride to me. Later that week on the very same pool deck that he had introduced himself to a ship full of strangers, Brian got down on one knee and proposed to Rachael. She said yes!