There was a brief time in the 1970s that I would not salute the flag during opening ceremonies I attended. This was not about disrespect. It was more an act of general defiance.
I had just returned from combat in Vietnam. After three years of evaluation, I was judged to be physically unable to remain in the Navy and was granted a medical retirement.
My reluctance to salute or put my hand over my heart when the flag was being used at an event was, in my mind, a simple way of saying “I don’t have to. I have served. I have already shown my allegiance.” I guess I was just waiting for someone to challenge me. No one ever did, a reflection of the freedom the flag represents.
I have changed my mind about that. Now, when there is a public rendering of the national anthem or when our colors are presented, I do uncover if I am wearing a hat. I always stand and place my hand over my heart. I show the flag the respect I feel for both this country and its national symbol. It is another way to express my extreme gratitude for the freedoms I have enjoyed for 70-plus years.
A Smithsonian National Museum of American History website says “On September 14, 1814, U.S. soldiers at Baltimore’s Fort McHenry raised a huge American flag to celebrate a crucial victory over British forces during the War of 1812. The sight of those ‘broad stripes and bright stars’ inspired Francis Scott Key to write a song that eventually became the United States' national anthem.”
Recently I heard a version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” sung by Madison Rising, a rock group. I didn’t expect to be touched, but the rousing treatment of the song was inspiring.
Every time I hear that song I swell with pleasure and pride. I have yet to hear a rendition that was offensive, no matter the style or approach.
I have made it a point not to listen to the pummeling a so-called comedian gave the national anthem at a Padres game in 1990. She is not worth the trouble.
There are other songs that inspire and sometimes bring me to tears. Neil Diamond’s “America” from the movie “The Jazz Singer” is one. For the first time in several years I heard that one on the car radio a few weeks ago. It helped make my day.
As we cycle through the 199th anniversary of the genesis of the national anthem, I have to reflect. For several years, conservatives have been saying we are experiencing troubling times and freedom is at risk. These may be troubling times, but such confusion has been part of our history for as long as there has been an American history.
Surely the Civil War was a hugely troubling time. The years leading up to both world wars were troubling times. The Depression that consumed lives and, for a time, prosperity, was more than troubling.
We’ve gotten through the difficulties of correcting the “lawful” racial discrimination that existed well into the ’60s. The late ’60s brought more troubling times with near rebellion over the Vietnam War.
In fact, with few exceptions, there have always been things some folks would describe as troubling times. We have managed to get through them all and usually we have been a stronger country for it.
Despite all the vitriol America’s critics bring up, more people agree with the lyrics of that Neil Diamond song than not. This remains a place of attraction. Immigrants are still “on the boats and on the planes…” coming to America. More want to move here than want to leave, by a remarkable margin.
On occasion, when I was conducting a large group event, I would use Lee Greenwood’s song “God Bless the USA” either to begin or end the evening. It never failed to generate a positive response.
A repeated refrain in Greenwood’s song was, “proud to be an American.” That is a key phrase. It works for me. I am proud to be an American.
I am proud, too, to stand for a song, the national anthem, which was written not as a testament to bombs and violence, but rather to the valiant stand those men made in defending freedom.
Hawkins is retired after 35 years as a construction industry association manager. He was broadcast reporter and news anchor in Denver. As a Navy officer, he saw action in Vietnam in the River Assault Squadrons and is the recipient of a Silver Star and Purple Heart.