Julie Cohen is a writer and high school English teacher in St. Louis.

Moments after I merged onto Interstate 70 northwest of St. Louis, heavy traffic began.

It’s 1 p.m. on a Wednesday, I thought, immediately annoyed. How can this be?

I assumed there had been an accident and the backup was from all the rubbernecking. Usually I avoid I-70 for just such reasons, but my son was home sick with a cough, and I had an errand to run in St. Charles, a city adjacent to St. Louis. Then, as the traffic crept along, my 4-year-old son in a car seat behind me, I noticed that there were several cars scattered along the shoulder of the road, with their drivers standing beside them.

My annoyance turned to anger. Another protest. For the past few weeks, some St. Charles parents have been staging protests against mask policies in the public schools, outraged that their children should possibly have to protect themselves and their teachers during a pandemic.

St. Charles County can feel like a foreign territory to many St. Louisans. In the 2020 election, Joe Biden took St. Louis City (82.3 percent of the vote) and St. Louis County (61.2 percent), but Donald Trump won in St. Charles County, with 57.8 percent.

Lately I had been infuriated by news coming out of St. Charles about its residents’ views on vaccines, masks and teaching critical race theory.

“Look at all the flags!” my son shouted. Some of the people by their cars were holding American flags. There seemed to be more people and cars, lots more, the farther we drove. I assumed that an elementary school that had prompted the mask protest must be coming up soon.

The flags made me mad. Or seeing how they were being used did. As an Air Force spouse and Army kid, I loved the flag and all that it represented. But in the past few years, it felt as if both the flag and the idea of patriotism had been co-opted by people whose views I disagreed with.

With the pandemic, using the flag to rally support for not wearing masks or getting vaccinated felt to me like a selfish, inane misinterpretation of what freedom truly means.

As the car rolled along, I darted glances over at the people on the shoulder, hoping to confirm my suspicions. It was a strange kind of protest. Nobody was yelling or chanting, nobody holding up signs — no “End Mask Mandate,” “End the Child Abuse” or, most offensive all, misappropriating the words of George Floyd and others, “I Can’t Breathe.”

Then I finally spotted a sign. Aha, I thought, here it is.

Semper Fi, it read. Always faithful, the motto of the Marines.

And then I got it. Finally.

This wasn’t a protest at all. I’d heard about the plan and forgotten: People were lining the highway to honor Lance Cpl. Jared Schmitz, one of the 13 service members killed in the Aug. 26 terrorist attack at Kabul airport.

“Look a firetruck!” my son shouted with delight.

"You’re right, sweetie.” Now I was crying.

Of all the times to drive I-70, the roadway I prefer to avoid, it had been during the 30-minute window when Jared’s body was being driven from St. Louis Lambert International Airport to Baue Funeral home in St. Charles — for 12 whole miles, thousands of people had lined the interstate to bring Jared home. Jared, a boy just shy of his 21st birthday. I’m a schoolteacher. He could have been my student only three years earlier.

My anger had blinded me — my unwillingness to think anything good could ever come from a crowd of people in St. Charles, my unwillingness to think that we could have something in common beyond mutual distrust.

At the next exit, I pulled over on the shoulder of the access road. “Where are we going?” my son asked.

I clicked him out of his car seat and picked him up.

“We’re going to stand with the other people.”