I do not pretend to speak for all veterans. I was never one of the troops who aspired to retire after a full and lengthy career in the Army. I enlisted following the 9/11 attacks because I was angry that our country and its civilians had been attacked, and I had every intention of being part of the effort to ensure that a subsequent attack would not occur. As I had completed my Master's degree prior to my enlistment, I had the option to join the military as an officer, but I felt compelled to enlist, because I felt a visceral need to be a direct and physical component of our nation's defense. I enlisted as Ranger Infantry, complete Basic/AIT, Airborne School, Ranger Indoctrination, and eventually Ranger School. I deployed with my unit for five brief tours to Afghanistan and Iraq during my four years of service. I suffered injuries (not wounds) that will affect my quality of life indefinitely. I did all of this without hesitation because I was outraged and indignant that the United States of America could be targeted by a cowardly, sideways attack.
I defend this country, even when I am embarrassed by the actions of some (often many) of its citizens. I embrace our freedoms, even when some are exercised in ways that I find objectionable. I am proud of my good friends, my brothers in arms, who have left their military service to pursue careers in civil service as police officers. My pride in those generous and courageous souls who would stand between citizens and danger remains, even in spite of my perception that some of their peers may have pursued the same career path for authority and power, rather than a desire to protect those who are unable to adequately protect themselves. I am proud of our role as global peacekeepers, even though I am angered when we appear to overstep the boundaries of that role. Whenever the national anthem plays, I stand and face the flag with my hand over my heart, with tears in my eyes, and I swell with pride and concern as I remember the sacrifices that were asked of my friends and I, while acknowledging that several of my friends, along with thousands of troops I'll never know, are still risking and giving everything.
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We live in a culture of outrage. It is fashionable to be upset, and we've been inundated with myriad examples of how any individual's feelings should be grounds to affect change in the behavior of others. Unfortunately, we also live in a culture that rejects accountability. Many of the people who have exclaimed outrage at Kaepernick's apparent disrespect to the flag have demonstrated a distinct lack of awareness to their own disrespect of the flag and national anthem. While it is customary to show respect to the flag by standing during the national anthem, that respect isn't conveyed as efficiently when those standing are also laughing, joking, texting, and gaming. I will admit to being irritated by those people, who have no message to convey or concern to bring awareness to, yet who disrespect the flag and anthem simply because they cannot be bothered to discontinue their activity or wait sixty seconds to voice their next comment. Colin Kaepernick may not have stood while the anthem played, but he also did not appear to be carrying a conversation or engaging in social media. Why is one disrespect so much more nefarious than the other, except for the fact that one was done with intention and decided upon after deliberation and study? Kaepernick has researched his position thoroughly, from historical and current social perspectives, and he has decided not to pay respect to a flag that represents a government that he believes is failing too many of its people. I originally agreed with Malcom Jenkins' assertion that Kaepernick's actions would focus too much attention upon his person, and too little upon his purpose. After Kaepernick addressed the media in the locker room with an earnest and informed explanation of his position, I feel he may have succeeded in his intention of inspiring further conversation. I wrote this article; you are reading it. The conversation is growing.
I am not upset, nor embarrassed, that Colin Kaepernick chose to sit during the national anthem. I don't feel personally disrespected by his choice to do so. I fought—literally, fought—in defense of his right to do so, and I am pleased that he clearly considered his reasons for taking the position he has. I accept his reasoning that his position in the public eye affords him a greater opportunity to call attention to a social issue. I accept his statement that he means no disrespect to the troops, and his actions through his career support that statement. The protest he has made has inspired greater participation in a conversation that must take place. The fact is, his American experience and mine aren't the same. I've openly argued with policemen before, and I've never felt that I was in any danger. Reading Torrey Smith's accounts of certain encounters he had with police officers as a young man makes it clear to me that many people in this country would expect to die if they did the same thing. In the small city I teach and coach in, a friend was asked to remain in his car and questioned by police, presumably for parking his car at the school where he works and coaches football. When it was made abundantly clear that he was exactly where he was supposed to be, the encounter was explained away, because they were "looking for a car that matched the description," of his car, a custom-painted car that looks unlike any other I have ever seen in our town. While I thought the explanation was flimsy, he rolled his eyes and said it is THE explanation most commonly used when a black man is pulled over and there ends up being no justification for detaining him. While he was merely annoyed, I was upset. I was more upset that his annoyance suggested the commonality of this type of interaction with law enforcement. I was embarrassed for this man who opens his heart and his time to young men with a confidence and generosity that I could only hope to emulate. I was embarrassed that I felt moments like this were parts of our history that we were ashamed of, not ugly corners of our current reality that we'd rather not hear about.
The simple fact that my friend's experience didn't surprise him makes me feel that Kaepernick has a point. The disgusting explosion of hate and bigotry leveled at Kaepernick via social media does more to make his point than it does to discourage his position. Frankly, as much as we don't care to admit it, racism is a real part of the American experience. Too many of us who are unaffected by it aren't taking part in a discussion that should endure and build until racism is identified and persecuted wherever it exists. I accept that people may always harbor prejudice, and that they have a right to do so, but leveraging that prejudice from a position of power to place American citizens in fear and to limit their rights to enjoy their freedoms and pursue success is a violation of what the American flag is supposed to stand for.
Just as my experience in America hasn't been the same as everyone else's, my image of the flag isn't the same as everyone else's. When I see the flag, I feel pride in the selfless service, dedication, and courage shown by our service members, and I am proud of the accomplishment and rigor I struggled through to grow and succeed alongside some of the best and strongest people I have known. I will continue to stand for the national anthem and salute the flag, because the image of our nation that I associate most closely with is comprised of the men and women who serve the country at great personal risk, out of a sense of duty. That's not everyone's experience.
To most people, the flag represents the government, and Americans often feel different amounts of disillusionment with the government. In many cases, citizens are simply embarrassed or angered by the disproportionate influence that wealthy and powerful entities exert upon the direction of our government. In many other cases, the flag represents a government that seems to serve and protect other citizens, a government that imposes feelings of fear rather than safety, and exercises control rather than care. I can accept that most police officers do not use their badge to get away with exercising destructive and occasionally lethal demonstrations of racism, and that those that do so receive more media attention than those that do not. It is only fair to make the equivocal statement that most young black men do not present a lethal danger to police officers, and that the existence of those who are violent criminals should not necessitate the assumption that all young black men should be regarded as violent criminals. If the flag represents the nation, it also represents the government that manages the nation. When citizens feel disillusioned with, or persecuted by, their own government, it is easy to understand why they might not feel a need to demonstrate reverence for the flag. It would make sense to me if those citizens felt that the flag represented oppression, rather than freedom.
I wouldn't stand for that, either.