Rubin: Sometimes, being asleep on the job is noble act

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

These guys know what heroism is, and what Jerry Mullins did isn’t close.

Above and beyond the call of duty, though?

Yes, sir.

Mullins, 61, retired as a master sergeant after 10 years in the Air Force and 25 in the Air National Guard. Now he’s a volunteer in a Freedom Center at Metro Airport.

The Freedom Centers — there’s one in each terminal — are reception and hospitality lounges for service members, veterans and their families. Their mission is to give travelers like Tony Blando a place to relax, recharge and maybe treat themselves to a cup of coffee and a muffin.

Blando was headed home from Washington, D.C., to Appleton, Wisconsin, two Fridays ago when bad weather rearranged his travel plans. Forget 10:06 p.m.; the new departure time was 6:45 a.m. Saturday.

A retired lieutenant colonel with 21 years in the Army, Blando reported to the center near gate A43 in the McNamara Terminal and asked Mullins when he was closing.

“Usually 11:30 or midnight,” Mullins said. That works, Blando said; he would just ease into a recliner for an hour or so and then make his way to a boarding gate until morning.

Shortly before 12, Blando roused himself and two sailors and headed for the door. They never reached it.

“You guys don’t have to leave,” Mullins told them. “I’m going to stay.”

Heavens no, said Blando, 53. “Really, you don’t have to do that.”

Mullins fixed him with his master sergeant stare. “Bed,” he said, “couch, or recliner?”

Recliner, thank you. One of the sailors chose the same, and the other took a sofa.

Mullins gave them blankets, then waited until they all fell asleep and took a sofa for himself. Before he could even fix them bagels Saturday morning, his boarders thanked him and sprinted off to catch their flights.

That would ordinarily be the end of it — a gracious gesture by someone who gave up his own bed at home in Sterling Heights so three strangers didn’t have to spend the night in airport chairs not suited for the purpose.

Blando, though, did not retire after he left the Army. He’s the chief of staff for Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., and when he wants to express his gratitude, he knows how to do it publicly.

Mullins “looked at me as if I was a brother,” he says, and he wants everyone to know how much he appreciated the sleep, the toothbrush and the kindness.

Now we do.

Sleeping and sandwiches

The Freedom Centers have served nearly 250,000 guests since the McNamara branch opened in November 2011 and the North Terminal outpost followed last December.

Sleeping on the job “is not something we expect our volunteers to do,” says executive director Kate Hude, but Mullins typically does it three or four times a year without acclaim.

“I just don’t like putting people out in those seats,” he says.

Mullins was stationed in Iraq twice. He has slept in worse places than a boarding gate, and so have most of his guests.

He remembers the tents, but he also remembers flying into Bangor, Maine, at 3 a.m. and finding 20 or 30 volunteers from the Maine Troop Greeters waiting to offer handshakes, snacks and cellphones.

He figures the least he can do in return is work the Friday evening shift in Romulus: Wi-Fi, sandwiches, smiles, and every now and again, slumber.

Making America great

Blando was grateful just to have Mullins stay until midnight. As someone who spends his workdays amid the incessant squabbling on Capitol Hill, he says it’s especially important to blast his thank-you through a megaphone.

“You look around,” he says, “and everything is just constant bad news, all the time.”

Or, it’s an endless hustle for attention, no matter the cause.

When someone quietly puts himself out to put three strangers up ... forgive him, but Blando can’t help himself.

“These are the kinds of people that make America great,” he says.

Were they in Wisconsin, “I’d have my boss stop by and leave him something.”

Instead, the officer is offering the gentleman a rarity:

A salute.