It amazes me that after all of these years, I still get goosebumps when I see the flag and hear the national anthem played. Although some people despise the U.S. flag and all that it stands for, most veterans, including myself, are still moved by the flag. It reminds us, not only of all that we’ve sacrificed and fought for, but all that is worth preserving.
A few weekends ago, I was standing in formation during a change-of-command ceremony. We went through the introduction of the official party and the invocation, then came the order to “present arms,” as the national anthem played, and we rendered honor to the flag. As I stood saluting, images came to my mind of all the people I’ve deployed and served with, and I remembered the great trials we went through in three deployments. It nearly brought me to tears. I was surprised by the feelings, both pride in our accomplishments, but also pride in what the flag stands for. It is a feeling that some may never fully understand. For those that do, it is easy to see why we feel that way.
For many veterans, the flag is a reminder of our sacrifices. We remember being away from home for months at a time. Many watched their families disintegrate as a result of their absence. We remember the labor and hours of sweating in the desert sun. We came back perpetually tired and broken, with weak knees, heat sickness, and all kinds of strange diseases. Some remember the many friends lost and the injuries sustained. Many of these injuries are not visible – a huge percent of returning veterans now struggle with post-traumatic stress or derivative stress syndromes, which have led to anger, depression, substance abuse, joblessness, and homelessness. Even many who returned without PTSD lost their jobs – although laws protect service members from being fired or reduced in pay, they don’t apply to those self-employed, and there are many businesses that find ways around the law. Many of us gave up cushy jobs to deploy and made far less in the Army. I’ve personally known many Soldiers who literally gave up all they had to serve – family, businesses, wealth, and health.
Other service members remember the comradeship the flag represents. We remember both good times and bad. We remember the trips to foreign countries and going on the town. We remember shopping at local markets or eating out at local restaurants. Some remember parties in hotels when on pass or going to local bars and restaurants. We also remember helping people. We remember handing out candy to local children, helping to build schools, or wiring buildings. We remember responding to tornadoes and hurricanes, directing traffic, and delivering food and water to help broken communities. Some remember being shot at, having IEDs go off down the road, or getting into accidents. These are what make us a band of brothers. Most of all, we remember lying in hasty fighting positions, driving around getting lost, getting stuck in the mud, sleeping in tents, pulling guard duty, conducting patrols, getting in trouble, pulling KP, and the dozens of other experiences that are the stuff of friendship.
Beyond all of this, the flag reminds us of home. It reminds us of Memorial Days and visits to the graves of the fallen near statues of heroes long past who died for us; Independence Days watching fireworks with spouses, children, and parents; picnics in green parks with hamburgers, corn on the cob, and apple pie; swimming or boating in pools, rivers, or the ocean or lying on the beach; school days studying, marching in the band, or playing and watching football; autumn days of orange and yellow leaves, crisp air, and oblique sunlight; Thanksgivings full of family and friends sharing a grateful meal; and Christmases, sometimes snowy, but always full of love, gift-giving, and the happiness of children. Most of all, it reminds us of the beautiful homeland and freedoms that make these blessed scenes possible. Of course, none of these things erases the injustices of the world, of economic struggle, pain, and ugly urban blight. Yet for most people the flag represents the hope of moving past all of that and grasping hope for the future. If these scenes don’t give you goosebumps, there is something wrong with you.
There will always be people who focus on the negative. Those who have never served will never know or understand the depth of emotion with which veterans view the flag. Let the haters hate. For the rest of us, let us always be moved by the star-spangled banner that will ever wave “o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
© 2023 J.D. Manders