Here's what America looks like:
More than a dozen soldiers, some professional and some playing the part, jostling in the back of a truck down a road deep inside Fort Gordon.
One of the professionals, 27-year-old Alex Adorno, is telling about coming to the mainland from Puerto Rico, speaking no English until learning at a U.S. Army language school in Texas.
The lessons weren't sink or swim; they were speak or starve. He quickly learned "chicken," he laughs, so he could get through the lunch line without going hungry.
Adorno is now a warrant officer with the 35th Signal Brigade at Fort Gordon, and speaks rapidly, though fluently. On this day, he's also a "battle buddy" for a green civilian getting a look at military life.
Fort Gordon's "Augusta in Army Boots" allows ordinary citizens to put on the uniform for a day and hang around with soldiers. It is, of course, a very good public relations program. But it also is a tremendous gift to those civilians.
Thirteen of us were privileged to spend 12 hours Wednesday with Adorno and some of his fellow soldiers. The program usually is an overnighter, but even with the abbreviated version we received an education that no text or video could possibly impart.
For example, I learned that keeping soldiers safe is cumbersome. Literally, because each of them is weighted down with close to 25 pounds of personal armor. Figuratively, because it seems like there is a safety procedure, complete with manual or pamphlet, for every possible act.
We even got instructions on how to climb into the truck. My granddad would have chuckled at that.
I learned that while our professional soldiers see the Army as a job, just like any career in civilian life, they also express an astoundingly honest, open admiration of their work - and of their country.
"I love my job," Adorno says. "It took me around the world and back - a couple of times."
If only I loved my job as much as these guys love theirs. Maybe it would help if I got to shoot a gun more often at mine.
I'm not so naive as to think Fort Gordon didn't pick some of their better officers to join us. But unless you're a presidential candidate, sincerity can't be faked for more than a few minutes. These soldiers spent far too long baby-sitting civilians to merely keep up appearances.
They were kind enough to let us participate in training exercises that show what military life is about. They were patient enough to explain marksmanship to people who have never held a gun, to show us how to use the heat pack in an MRE to turn chicken and rice in a plastic pouch into lunch.
We gave a day of our easy lives to learn a little about theirs. After that day of walking in Army boots, wearing BDUs and ballistic armor and shooting M16s, the soldiers were still sharp. The civilians were exhausted.
But we had a little more spring in our steps and pride in our hearts when at last we lined up at Alexander Hall to be "commissioned" as honorary second lieutenants by Fort Gordon Commanding Gen. Jeff Foley.
Walking down a Fort Gordon sidewalk afterward, Adorno and I couldn't have seemed more different. Young, fit and battle-tested, he looked as fresh as the day started. Trudging alongside, lugging personal and Army gear, I looked like I'd been evicted from a Boy Scout camp.
But we also have a few things in common. Both of us married our high school sweethearts. We both have daughters; his was born while he was serving in Iraq. And though he's been many other places courtesy of the U.S. Army, both of us live in Columbia County.
That's what America looks like: the vigilant protectors and the complacent protected, side by side.
It sure looks good to me.
Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to barry.paschal at newstimesonline.com.
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