The airport gates in Greensboro, N.C., have been the scene of numerous happy reunions, and just as many tearful goodbyes, with my family over the years. But those scenes had to be relocated when new rules regarding airline travel were implemented after the terrorists’ attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

No longer were my parents and my sister’s family allowed to march to the gate to give us one final hug before we boarded our flight to Texas, and no longer were they allowed to be waiting for us there when we climbed off the plane.

So as a week’s visit earlier this month was coming to an end, I was surprised to see what appeared to be three generations of another family huddled around each other directly in front of the gate as we waited for our airplane to arrive. My first impulse was to cry “foul.” Why can’t my mother join my wife and me while we wait because the plane was delayed an hour because of bad weather?

But after a few seconds, I was able to catch a glimpse of the center of this group’s attention: a young man in camouflage attire sporting that signature military haircut. My outrage quickly turned to respect. How nice it is, I thought, that whatever authority that is in control here allowed this family to spend an extra hour or so together before this soldier boarded his flight.

As it turned out, this exception is not without precedence. According to the Transportation Security Administration, family members who want to accompany a military service member being deployed to the boarding gate or greet them returning from deployment at the arrival gate may receive passes to enter the secure area of the airport. Interested military family members only need to contact their air carrier representative at the departure/arrival airport for proper local procedures.

Air travelers who have watched the progression of passenger security requirements at commercial airports over the past seven years have probably seen the full spectrum of practices, ranging from what they probably consider instances of frightening inattention to those of incredible overreaction. One such extreme situation occurred the January after the 2001 attacks, and perhaps the timing helps explain the zealousness of security’s reaction. It may explain it, but it hardly forgives it.

The late Joseph J. Foss — a former governor of South Dakota who lived in Arizona until his death in 2003 — was a retired Marine Corps general. He was, at one time during World War II, America’s top ace after gunning down 26 enemy aircraft in the South Pacific. President Franklin Roosevelt in 1943 personally presented Foss with the Medal of Honor for action over Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific.

The 86-year-old war hero had been invited to speak at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and he thought it would be appropriate to take his Medal of Honor with him. Rather than toss it into his luggage, Gen. Foss decided to carry it with him in his jacket.

It’s a long story that’s been well documented, but Foss was hassled and delayed, had his medal confiscated and for a while was told that such dangerous items would have to be destroyed. After all, that “thing” has points, and it could be used as a weapon. I guess the gatekeepers had no way of knowing what a Medal of Honor looks like, nor that this grandfatherly old man had been a World War II Marine pilot whose mission was to fly over the enemy fleet as a decoy while torpedo planes moved in.

Sanity ultimately prevailed at the Phoenix airport, but not before Gen. Foss almost missed his flight and (hopefully) the wet-behind-the-ears security team got a lesson in patriotism. But hey, you never know when an 86-year-old war hero carrying the highest military honor this nation can bestow will turn traitor.

If there was a silver lining to that situation, it was that the nation was reminded that thousands of such heroes are living among us, and we often don’t recognize who they are. Although only a relative handful of them can be awarded the top commendations, all of them should receive our appreciation for their service. This weekend, a grateful nation will pause on Memorial Day to remember particularly those who sacrificed the most to ensure this nation’s freedoms.

Those liberties include, among others, our freedom to practice or not practice religion, our freedom of speech, and our freedom of movement within our own borders. We don’t have to do something grand like organize a parade or a dinner to show our thanks. Sometimes, it’s the little gestures — like letting a family be together just a few minutes longer at the airport — that mean as much to those who put themselves in harm’s way.

Gene Deason is managing editor of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Friday. He may be reached by e-mail at gene.deason@brownwoodbulletin.com.