Today is the day set aside to give thanks to veterans of this great nation. And like other holidays, you'll have people telling you that you shouldn't need a special day to do that -- which is true, but it's still nice to single out a day. After all, people don't say at a birthday party that, hey, why do you need a special day? We appreciate you every day!
Okay, that was a silly analogy, but I do want to address something here today. It has to do with "flag-waving" and the current backlash that seems to be building against it.
Northwestern plans to wear some pretty over-the-top USA-screaming uniforms next weekend to raise money (sort of) for the Wounded Warrier project. That's all well and good, but the unis themselves began to create a little friction. After all, the US Flag Code states that “No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform.”
Well, that's pretty clear, isn't it? But that hasn't stopped teams from honoring the troops with varying degrees of red, white and blue adornments. Your very own Boilermakers wore a USA flag "P" on their helmets this past weekend. Some might argue that what Purdue did is less “wearing a flag as a uniform” and more of a subtle tribute. I also might argue that given the way logos and branding are protected by companies, universities and sports franchises, that altering one of your primary logos to pay tribute to the flag is a pretty significant tribute indeed.
Matt Ufford wrote an impassioned piece over at SBNation over the weekend about the Northwestern unis and why, as a veteran, he hates them. You should read it, regardless of your stance. He has more than earned this opinion and nobody has any right to minimize it. And now you're thinking, "Oh, but here comes J to provide a counterpoint to that opinion he just said Ufford was entitled to." No, that's actually not what I'm doing. I'm simply going to try to provide the perspective of those of us who want to pay tribute and why we sometimes go out of our way to flagify things.
What I think many people forget is that not too long ago, veterans were not treated well in this country. If you're in your late-30s like several of us here at BS, you have parents who either served during Vietnam or knew (and likely lost) friends and family who did. It's one generation removed from some of us and if you think recent conflicts around the world have produced dissent and strife in this country, well, you haven't seen anything. To wit, people were literally lighting themselves on fire in protest in multiple parts of the world, including the U.S.
When veterans returned home from Vietnam, many were spit on and treated with disdain normally afforded child molesters and terrorists. The war was indescribably unpopular at home -- yet, many of those who went and served did so because they were drafted into service. These weren't ROTC guys or men who enlisted after high school to get some direction. These were average kids who were just out of high school or college who received a letter saying it was time to go. Basic training followed, and then in many cases it was off to a deadly war in a faraway land. These guys (and women) served their country, saw unimaginable horrors and then came home (if they were lucky) to a United States that seemingly hated them because they symbolized this ill-advised "conflict."
I've summarized the horrible treatment of Vietnam vets in two paragraphs, which is obviously a gross oversimplification. But my point here isn't to have a historical debate about U.S. involvement in foreign conflicts; it is that there was an entire generation who was, quite simply, mistreated by the American public when it came to their service.
Skipping ahead to modern times, which I will start in 1991 and the first gulf war, Americans seem to be determined not to make the same mistakes made by those in the ‘60s and ‘70s – at least in terms of how we treat those who wear U.S. military uniforms. It’s been a steady crescendo of appreciation for those who have served in battle to those who serve at all to those who once served and perhaps didn’t get their due. Now, we’re overcompensating, as the saying goes. We look for ways to respect our servicemen and women. We let them board commercial flights first. Whoop dee do, right? But maybe that’s just it – yeah, it’s not some hugely grand gesture, but it’s….what we’ve got.
What can we, mere citizens of this great nation, truly offer to men and women who have literally laid down their lives so that we may sit around watching college football and trading dip recipes? Nothing of substance, really. Only thanks. And tributes in whatever ways we can think of.
The aforementioned early airline boarding. Applause when the troops come home. Big signs welcoming local soldiers back to their hometowns. Patriot Guard escorts. And yes, tributes on uniforms. It may not be much…but it’s something. It makes us feel better. It makes us feel like we’re not forgetting them and it’s important to many of us for them to know we think of them particularly while we’re doing something fun like enjoying college football on a fall Saturday. Many of us know that we can only have such luxuries because there are men and women who voluntarily step forward and pledge that they will guarantee those freedoms and many others.
Sure, there are other ways to express your thanks, too. Volunteer time at a USO or donate – they’re always in need and it’s a very direct way to give back either with time or money. Donate your frequent flyer miles to the Fisher House’s Hero Miles Program, whose goal is “to support wounded, injured, and ill service members and their families who are undergoing treatment at a military or VA medical center or who are attending authorized events.” Or for simpler ideas, do things like donating (or selling back) your excess Halloween candy, so it can go to the troops. Get creative when looking for ways to give back and use Google for its non-porn-finding use.
But even if everyone stepped up and did the things in the preceding paragraph, would it be visible enough? Would it be an obvious-enough, broad-brush thanks to the men and women in uniform? Maybe…but maybe not, too.
That’s why people cheer flyovers at games and love to see field-sized flags unfurled. It is why many of us simply say thanks to uniformed military personnel when we see them, or buy a coffee for a veteran. Do these things “make any difference”? I guess some people’s opinions are that they do not. Some people feel as though we “overdo” it with the flags being affixed to so many things. And maybe that’s true… maybe we do overdo it.
However, maybe that’s what we need. Maybe a good majority of us feel puny and inconsequential when we measure our accomplishments in life against those of a soldier. Maybe sometimes we feel as though the “sacrifices” we’ve made in civilian life pale in comparison (because often they do). Maybe this is all just therapy for the regular folks among us. We just need to feel like we’re saying something meaningful…that we’re publicly giving thanks and making it about someone else and not all about us, as we so often do in this country.
Nearly everyone who has served or is serving will deferentially tell you that they’re just “doing their job” and, actually, it is dangerous to elevate military to deity-like status. However, that’s not what we’re doing – we just saying thank you. Because when it comes to borrowing one of the tools in my garage, you only need to say thank you once. But when it comes to someone literally preserving your freedoms, there’s no limit on how many thank yous you can give.
A year or two ago I was waiting to board a commercial flight and, as is our habit in the U.S., the boarding process was its messy, sloppy typical self. People were all jammed into one amorphous blob, awaiting rows or boarding groups or whatever it was we were staring at on our boarding passes. I noticed a relatively young soldier in his BDUs with three stripes on his sleeve awaiting the flight in one of the nearby chairs. The flight was full and many impatient travelers wanted to be told they could get on. While others noticed this young man along with me, many others did not seem to.
The attendant was quickly running through the boarding order in that way that they do when they’re feeling the pressure from the mob to move things along. She breezed by the special boarding and glossed quickly over the “All uniformed military members are welcome to board.”
I noticed he wasn’t boarding, so I got his attention and said, “Sergeant, come on, up here ahead of us.”
He rose but didn’t move with urgency, as few if any soldiers feel comfortable cutting any line.
“Oh, it doesn’t matter,” he politely said of the offer to let him board first.
“No, it does,” replied several of us.
It really does matter, everyone. It really does.
Thanks to all those who serve and have served with honor. We can never truly show the gratitude that is deserved. But thanks for letting us do our best.