Sunsets in the Black Hills of South Dakota are indescribably beautiful in the spring. I’ve witnessed them many times first-hand. Looking over Rapid City, SD sits Ellsworth AFB. The home of the B-1 Bomber. This was my first assignment as a newly minted Air Force Munitions Specialist, as green as those Black Hills are once you actually get inside of them.
You were in the middle of no-where but in the middle of such an important piece of America. The 35-mile drive to Mt. Rushmore and the further 20 to the Crazy Horse Memorial was in itself something special. Passing battlefields, and ranches, and small villages like Keystone or Hill City, you start to feel its importance in our nation’s story.
I don’t know about you, but between the historical and cultural significance of those sacred native lands, coupled with events like the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and gambling while drinking whiskey in a saloon in Deadwood, it doesn’t really get more American than western South Dakota.
One afternoon, I had just finished checking out at the base gas station and was walking towards the door as a Technical Sergeant said to me “Hey, airman! Don’t walk out that door,” as if he was saving my life. I froze and slowly turned around. In my Red-Bull-induced ecstasy, I had failed to notice a group of about six others in uniform waiting by the doors looking more annoyed with each second that passed. Within moments of turning around, the sound of Retreat blasted from the loudspeakers signaling the end of the duty and the playing of the national anthem.
This Sergeant had just saved me – from having to pay my respect to the flag.
In one of the most #MericaAF places in the country, with a backdrop that some people only see on movies like National Treasure, or on postcards from their Harley-Davidson loving, Wall Drug bumper sticker owning neighbors, people were ducking the national anthem.
This was unfortunately a common theme throughout my career. Schedules would be moved around to avoid the daily 17:00 ritual on military installations across the world. I’ve seen people stay at work late just to avoid having to stop their car during “tunes.” I’d like to say that I wasn’t involved but there were times I was worried that those two and a half minutes were going to put a delay on getting my weekend started. That’s how complacent I had become.
It wasn’t for a few years that I realized that this norm wasn’t right. And it took a major disruption to make it happen.
Fast forward a few years and I’m once again at a base gas station, this time at Spangdahlem AB, Germany. Not so fresh anymore, I made my way slowly towards the exit. As the door detected my presence and opened, the sound of the drumroll began.
Then it happened.
A voice called out “excuse me.” As I turned to get out of the way, a young Technical Sergeant was throwing on her hat, and walking towards those doors with no intention of letting me or anyone else get in her way. She took two steps out the door, and immediately assumed the position of “Parade Rest”, followed by a pop to “Attention” with a crisp salute as the first note of our national anthem bellowed throughout the base and the surrounding Rhine countryside.
Without saying a word, she used her actions to make a point. She disrupted the norm which I had witnessed day after day for the last three years. She never looked back at us, and I never saw her again. But that lesson has been with me ever since.
I challenged myself to become a disruptor after that. I challenged “ducking” the anthem at my level whenever possible, hoping to stir the same self-thought exercise that the young Technical Sergeant had instilled in me. In doing so, I learned that if we are to overcome difficult subjects, sometimes it takes a challenge to the status quo to raise that discussion.
For some it’s as easy as walking outside while others stay indoors during the National Anthem.
For some it’s a difficult decision to make -- like those citizens deciding on whether or not they should kneel during the national anthem before an NFL game. I can tell you that it is not a decision that those citizens have taken lightly. Some, such as former 49’ers QB Colin Kaepernick, have gone as far as to reach out to veterans to ensure that the message is not lost in the noise.
People often forget that the flag, while a powerful symbol, is just that – a symbol. The flag stands for something far greater than “freedom” or “the troops.” It represents the Constitution of the United States of America.
When we swear our oaths as service members, it is not to protect and defend the flag of the United States of America – it’s to protect and defend her constitution. And within that document, the Framers of our nation felt that their first and foremost duty should be to secure the right to freedom of speech – so much so that they made it the First Amendment.
In this veterans’ eyes, supporting these citizens is a hell of a lot more patriotic than wrapping your junk in an American flag bathing suit at your neighbor’s pool party. Supporting these individuals right to use the platform that they’ve worked hard to earn to question society at-large is supporting the exercise of our constitutional freedoms. To claim it’s disrespectful to our flag or the troops while wiping your mouth with the stars and stripes napkins you bought for your giant barbeque is to not really truly understand what these brave disrupters are trying to accomplish as well as just downright hypocritical.
So, this Memorial Day weekend, take a moment away from your ice-cold beer which rests comfortably in your American flag koozie that’s soaking up the condensation moisture that’s not fit to touch your fingers and take a moment to understand why you’re actually mad.