Like most veterans, I have vivid memories of my years in military service. But perhaps more important than memories are the emotions they carry, and how they change you forever. Sometimes the quiet moments are the most powerful.
One such memory was born on my first day of boot camp, or basic training. I stood at attention with dozens of other new recruits. We had just been equalized. All of us had been stripped of our individual identities. There we stood with freshly shaved heads, wearing the same green military fatigues. Even our glasses were replaced with what we referred to as "Clark Kents" -- solid black frames reminiscent of a stereotypical 1950s geek.
Our training instructor was a tough man. The rows of stripes on his uniform were only outdone by the years of stripes etched in his face. It was clear to us he was a seasoned soldier.
"I want you all to look up at that flag," he said, pointing as he paced in front of us. To his right was a United States flag. "When I returned home after serving in Vietnam, no one was there to greet me," he continued. "I was treated more like a criminal than a returning soldier who had served his country.
"After stepping off the bus, I looked up and saw a man with long hair wearing a U.S. flag as a patch on the seat of his pants. Something inside me snapped," he said. "I ran over to the man and tore that patch right off his pants and shook it at him. I said, ‘My friends died fighting for everything this flag stands for. Don't you ever wear it on your ass again.'"
While telling this story, the sergeant stopped and looked at the ground. There was a long period of silence that seemed out of step with the moment as we stood in this busy military facility. I looked closer and saw that this tough training instructor had tears in his eyes.
Here, perhaps for the first time in my life, I was given a glimpse of what it was all about -- this thing my grandfather and other older men had tried to teach me about freedom, service, sacrifice and love of country.
In the years that followed, I would have many experiences with our country's flag. Serving in the honor guard I draped it over coffins of dead soldiers. I carried it high in parades and official military ceremonies. I raised it with pride early in the mornings and lowered it reverently at night.
There is a measure scheduled for a vote on the floor of the U.S. Senate this week that is designed to protect and promote respect for the U.S. flag. It's not just a bill. If passed by a two-thirds majority and ratified by 38 of the 50 states, Senate Joint Resolution 12 would become the 28th amendment to the Constitution.
In 1989 the Supreme Court made flag desecration legal when it overturned the laws of 48 states by ruling that the act of defiling the U.S. flag was considered speech.
If Senate Joint Resolution 12 becomes an amendment, it would not make flag desecration a crime; rather, it would remove jurisdiction over the flag from the courts and give it to the people. With the amendment, Congress could then re-establish flag protection laws. And this is why I worry.
I love this country. I love our flag and all that it stands for. I respect the men and women who have served and sacrificed for the freedoms it represents and that we all enjoy. But as a veteran, I also know that to love something must be a choice. You can no more make a law that forces someone to love and respect the flag than you can force someone to love a person. We must remember that the freedoms we have fought to protect apply to everyone in this country -- even those who may not appreciate what they have.