My voice is hoarse in the cold January air as I give the command to the seven men gathered to discharge their M-16s. The loud crack that follows shatters the nearby motorcycles revving their engines. Standing motionless at the military position of attention, I shift my eyes toward the Patriot Guard standing watch while they continue to rev their engines. From behind one of the muscled men in a sleeveless motorcycle jacket I glimpse the gradient yellow sign and the word “FAG.”
“Let it go,” I remind myself.
Thirty minutes earlier I was furious. I didn’t think Westboro Baptist Church would actually drive this far to protest my friend’s funeral. That kind of thing happened to other soldiers. Not me. Not my friends.
My peripheral gaze lingers a few more moments before I give the command to “fire” once more. Then the slow, soulful cry of a trumpet laments the loss of another soldier in what seems like an endless war.
It was my team sergeant, Paul, who pulled me aside and spoke the truth I still remember years later that soothed my anger and got me through the ceremony.
“Let it go, Sledge. Toby died so that all of us have a right to protest. Just or unjust, they have a right to be here even if we hate it. If they don’t have that right, none of us will. Toby understood that.”
Whenever the national anthem or our nation’s flag gets brought into the spotlight, people want to know what I think as a veteran.
“Are you outraged?”
“What do you think?”
“They’re disrespecting your sacrifice!”
I’m still perplexed over the fact that somehow the national anthem and our flag have become about veterans. If I remember, the pledge says “one nation” not “just veterans.”
While I have carried the flag into battle, worn it on my uniform, and will one day have it draped over my coffin, I need to clarify that as a veteran I support what the NFL players are doing.
And I don’t find it disrespectful.
None of the players are running around burning flags on the field (though that is also their right), flipping off cameras, or engaging in hostile behavior. Like the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement they are engaging in a peaceful form of protest against systemic racism and injustice towards men and women of color.
Kneeling has never been about the anthem regardless of what the media or others tell you. It’s always been about race and what the American people — who represent us as a nation under the flag — continue to ignore. Blatant injustice and racism.
We keep making it about respect for our country, and veterans are now lumped into the mix as the great defenders in a culture war. We never asked to be though.
The most disconcerting thing for me as a veteran is the rhetoric by men in positions of power that players should be fined or removed from play for exercising a civil right. That mentality is dangerous. Under Amendment I of the Constitution it states:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
As the flag is a symbol of our government and its practices, by pressuring coaches and owners to punish or bench players, it’s a direct contradiction. If constituents aren’t allowed to petition their government for grievances, my question then becomes, “who will we be allowed to disagree with?”
Imagine for a moment, the public practice of prayer becomes outlawed. In protest of the government, Christians everywhere sit in protest during the national anthem. They hold press conferences reminding the nation of our history as religious refugees from England and how this is repression and they cannot — in good conscience — honor a flag that ignores this gross injustice. The government, other elected officials, and businesses then pressure employers to punish or withhold pay from employees who sit during the national anthem.
While we can view the situation as absurdly hypothetical, if you replace the words “Christians” with “NFL players,” it’s far too similar.
Whether you agree or disagree with the players or not is irrelevant at this point. That they’re exercising their civil rights — the very thing soldiers fight for, believe in, and are sworn to uphold by oath — but are being threatened with administrative punishment should concern us all.
While businesses and establishments may restrict conversations within the workplace they may deem divisive or inflammatory (religion, politics, etc), that the government is pressuring an organization to restrict freedoms makes me uneasy. Roger Goodell and Jerry Jones stood behind their players the other week, but with a little pressure applied, they caved. It’s not just a failure in virtue, but business ethics. I’ll be curious to see what happens during the next Cowboys game, and I hope some of the players kneel. Other men find their strength when they look to those brave enough to stand on conviction.
Personally, you won’t catch me kneeling during the anthem. I’ve walked into battle and bled next to people of color who’ve worn that same flag or been buried beneath the red, white, and blue. But the flag means something different to soldiers than it does the rest of the civilian population.
The day I entered boot camp, my drill sergeant screamed in the face of a young Latino man when he refused to sleep next to another soldier. They both were former members of opposing gangs. He told them:
“You are no longer bloods, crips, black, white, chocolate, light brown, red or yellow! You are GREEN, privates! And we will beat that into you until you’re willing to die for one another!”
And they did.
So while I may not protest by kneeling because of my convictions, I’m glad NFL players are using their conviction and freedom to protest. This doesn’t mean I’m not protesting what’s going on. My methods just look different. Writing this piece is one of many forms in which I can remind others there is injustice. There is systemic racism. I’ve seen it firsthand, and I know most of us have.
But how we handle it is another question. Silence? The culture wars? Vitriol and hatred?
Perhaps we need only look to the NFL players who’ve stood on conviction and protested in a civil manner while not backing down to pressure.
Conviction is worthless unless it is converted into conduct.
— Thomas Carlyle
For those who don’t know, it was Special Forces soldier, Nate Boyer, who met with and suggested Colin Kaepernick take a knee out of respect and protest. See below.