Andersen: It’s a grand old flag
The American flag was presented to me last week by a team of combat veterans. I had never looked at the symbol of our nation the way I did then.
The presentation was made during the final Huts for Vets trip of our busiest summer yet, where we took more than 50 veterans into the wilderness for healing opportunities at the 10th Mountain Huts of Aspen.
“Huts for Vets has truly changed my life and is making me a better father, husband and leader in my community,” said Mike Greenwood, an Iraq War veteran of the 10th Mountain Division who handed me the neatly folded flag.
Mike was one of our first participants when Huts for Vets started in 2013. He is now one of our trip co-leaders and moderators. He also holds a leadership position with Team Red, White and Blue, a national organization that refers veterans to our programs.
The flag is always flown by Team Red, White and Blue members, and it’s become a stirring sight on our mountain trails. Watching the stars and stripes flutter under deep-blue skies is moving when it is held aloft by veterans who gave everything for the deep values they attach to it.
The flag led us last week as we set off into the wilderness with 10 combat veterans, several of whom were highly decorated for valor. These men often tell their stories with brutal honesty.
One Army Special Forces veteran described having to shoot an Iraqi who refused to maintain the required distance from his compound.
“I had to shoot this man, and since our mission was community relations, I then had to dress his wound,” he said. “I saw firsthand the result of a trigger squeeze — a small entry wound and a much larger exit wound.”
This same veteran and his team were on hand when Saddam Hussein was routed from his hole in the ground. He talked about smoking Cuban cigars left behind in one of Saddam’s palaces — dry, stale and harsh from the aridity of the desert.
Another veteran described being blown up by a car bomb, of being punctured with shrapnel and scorched from rescuing a man from beneath the burning car. On any given trip, there comes a litany of war stories detailing the terrible costs of our perpetual conflicts. As one veteran put it, “We have seen man at the most evil man can be.”
The flag Mike presented came with a triangular case fitted with a glass cover displaying the flag’s white stars and blue background. This flag is a symbolic piece of fabric to which these men pledged their lives but to which I have had moral conflicts.
In my younger days, when the war in Vietnam was raging, the flag was stolen from me and my generation by chicken hawks who paraded it around as a political tool and ultra-patriotic prod. The flag became their symbol for what history shows was an unjust, misguided war.
Those who have waved the flag as a symbol of disunity have done it injustice, just as some in my generation did by burning it or wearing it as a militant uniform against American imperialism.
The stripes of the flag represent the 13 original colonies, harking to the founding principles of America. The stars symbolize the unification of 50 distinct states. The flag is many things to many people, but it deserves a higher meaning, a more encompassing intent.
As I held the flag for the first time in many years, it evoked more than a bloody symbol of American power, more than shameful betrayals of Native Americans, more than saber-rattling.
As many of our veterans attest, the flag goes beyond a brand of nationalism based on war and hegemony. It spreads over vast national landscapes — from cities to farms to wilderness — that transcend the ever-changing tides of political and ideological battles.
Watching the flag flutter from the summit of Mount Yeckel, at almost 12,000 feet, there was something new about it. I was filled with a sense of inclusivity offered by veterans who have sacrificed all and therefore sanctified that often misused and misunderstood star-spangled symbol.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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