17 June, 2006

Flags and Memories and Service

I didn't post much last week (mostly 'cause I was sick as a dog), and I didn't read much either. Hence I missed Chuck's (CPT Z's) beautiful Flag Day speech. He had a lot of wonderful things to say about the significance and history of our flag, but it was something else in the middle of the speech that most "hit" me.

There are several reasons it had so much impact on me. First of all, as I'm in this transition between not just jobs but really between phases or directions in my life and career, I've been looking back at how I got here. And part of how I got here has to do with Chuck and how his experiences inspired Valour-IT. And I've been realizing that it will soon be almost a year since he was wounded in Iraq. So, I went back and read the posts on his blog related to the weeks just after his injury, and then the ones about the impact the voice-controlled laptop had on him. And I remembered meeting him at the MilBlog Conference, and some of the conversation we shared, and how it felt to finally be able to hug him and Carren after so many months of talking on the phone and caring about them from such a distance.

And it was in this context that I then went to his homepage and saw the Flag Day speech. He described the history of Flag Day and then said [his words hereafter in italics]:

Really, it’s a good story because it showcases the best of the American system of government. Somebody has a good idea. They talk to their friends and neighbors, they organize, and the idea begins to grow and get legs, and turns into a movement. And eventually that small little idea becomes a part of our laws. A part of our nation. A part of us.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is representative democracy. That is government of the people, and by the people. That is what this country and this flag are all about. That is why we are fighting a war in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’ve removed petty despot dictators from power, and, because we believe so strongly in freedom and democracy, we stayed on, helping the citizens of those nations develop their own representative governments.

...We needed to not only help them repair and establish infrastructure, but secure their country from the threat of terrorists who wish to reestablish totalitarian caliphates, and we need to literally teach them basic civics from the township level all the way to their federal government.

I smiled as I remembered his stories of patiently working with the local sheiks in his AO, trying to show them their options in a just and law-abiding society when it would've just been easier (and still legal) to personally nab the wrongdoer and throw him in jail himself.

...Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve seen, like many of my brothers who’ve gone before me and those who are represented here today by these flags—I’ve seen the horror of war. I’ve experienced first hand horrible injury and disfigurement.

Yes, and nearly a year later I think of how glad I am to see his continuing recovery, and how glad I am that he is still with us to share the speech that I am reading.

I’ve visited with many of my brothers and sisters who’ve suffered even more than I, who lie in military hospital beds and wait for their wounds to heal, for infections to subside, for prosthetics to be made and fitted. Almost to a man, the question foremost in their mind is “When can I go back?” They understand that there is a job to do. A mission with a true purpose and a noble cause. A cause so important that a man who’s lost both arms and a leg does not wallow in self pity, but focuses on returning to his unit, to his adopted family, and even to the throngs of smiling and waving children whose greatest gift is a pad of paper and a pen, handed out by a soldier on a patrol. The personal courage of our nation’s veterans never ceases to inspire and amaze me.

But Chuck amazes us, too. Not as some romanticized hero on a pedestal, but as a brilliant, funny, sometimes caustic and disturbing, more often warm-hearted and very idealistic, tough-as-nails human being who has stood the line in our place and fought his way back from the hell that put him in. He amazes and inspires us, but like any true hero always looks to those he sees more worthy of praise.

From the interactions we've had, I'm convinced Chuck is every inch the stereotype of the tanker he is--outrageous, snarky, gutsy, profane, and quite possibly crazy. But as the rest of his speech shows, he's also what I have found the typical American soldier to be these days--a dichotomy: both the cynic who has seen the worst of the world and the idealist who believes it can be changed, the hard-edged warrior ready to fight wherever needed and the loving person who revels in the best parts of being human.

While I was lying in my bed at Walter Reed, only a few weeks after being wounded, a man I recognized walked past my room. He was another captain that I had served with earlier in my career. I noticed something very different about him—he was missing both feet. He’d lost his right leg in OIF 1, the invasion of Iraq, and then, a year and a half later, lost his other leg during OIF 3, the rebuilding of Iraq. He walked on prosthetic legs, and was at the hospital to receive his second purple heart, and was then returning to his unit to continue a train up for yet another tour.

These stories may seem out of place on a day designated to honor our flag, but without those who stand beneath it, our flag is but a piece of cloth, no different than the sheets on our bed.

And how wonderful to think that my friend Chuck is one of those people who stands beneath it--in all his kind-heartedness, demented humor, sometimes caustic wit, and inspiring idealism:

...I am so privileged to serve under the banner of my nation. I am so proud to live in a country where people like reverend Phelps, the misguided cleric from Topeka, Kansas, has a right to desecrate the flag, protest military funerals, and protest outside VA hospitals, to rail against all that I hold dear. I am honored to be the defender and protector of his rights, for he and his ilk are miserable creatures who are only kept free through the exertions, sacrifice, and blood of others. I am saddened by his twisted and misguided rhetoric. I am honored to stand with my brothers, and in the ranks of those who’ve gone before me for the last two hundred and thirty years, who humbly serve our nation, knowing that our only guaranteed right for doing so is a flag draped casket.

In America it is illegal to burn trash, but we can burn the flag. It is illegal to remove a label from a mattress, but we can literally rip the stars and stripes right off of our flag. It is illegal to damage a mailbox, but we can destroy our flag. A people that does not honor and respect their flag is a people that does not honor and respect their country nor their neighbor. Today is Flag Day. I say if we want to make a political statement, we can burn our bras, burn our BVDs, but we should leave Old Glory alone. Every day should be Flag Day.

The next time I hear someone imply our fighting men and women are simply violent automatons or heartless beasts, I may show myself more the beast than any soldier I know. For buried in the heart of every soldier it has been my privilege to call "friend," is no bloodless emptiness nor raging beast. Dark memories, lingering anger and scars of the mind there may be... there is also this faith and idealism; there is a heart that believes in all that is good and noble and beautiful; there are hopes and dreams that we as a nation will live up to the ideals for which they have sacrificed so much.

But what is the flag? I agree with former Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane who thought that if the flag could talk, it would say:

'I am whatever you make me, nothing more.'

'I am your belief in yourself, your dream of what a people may become.'

'I live a changing life, a life of moods and passions, of heartbreaks and tired muscles.'

'Sometimes I am strong with pride, when people do an honest work, fitting the rails together truly.'

'Sometimes I droop, for then purpose has gone from me, and cynically I play the coward.'

'Sometimes I am loud, garish and full of ego that blasts judgment.'

'But always, I am all that you hope to be, and have the courage to try for.'

'I am song and fear, struggle and panic, and ennobling hope.'

'I am the day's work of the weakest man and the largest dream of the most daring.'

'I am the Constitution and the courts, statutes and state-maker, soldier and dreadnaught, cook, counselor and clerk.'

'I am the battle of yesterday and the mistake of tomorrow.'

'I am the mystery of the men who do without knowing why.'

'I am the clutch of an idea and the reasoned purpose of resolution.'

'I am no more than what you believe me to be and I am all that you believe I can be.'

'I am what you make me; nothing more.'

'I swing before your eyes as a bright gleam of color, a symbol of yourself, the pictured suggestion of that big thing which makes this nation. My stars and my stripes are your dreams and your labors. They are bright with cheer, brilliant with courage, firm with faith, because you have made them so out of your hearts; for you are the makers of the Flag, and it is well that you glory in the making.'

I know Chuck believes that, and the wonderful thing is that I do to. And so I stand with Chuck and the millions of others inside and outside the military who have given ourselves over to finding our roles and giving what we were made to give. Chuck is a soldier, and we're so glad he's still with us. I'm a civilian, and I'm so glad I've found my way to serve, too.