SAN ANTONIO, Texas — A man in a coffee shop made a fist, put it over his heart, tapped his chest twice, and mouthed the words “Thank you” as my nephew, Peyton Corbett, a new graduate of U.S. Air Force Basic Military Training, passed him.
Another man stopped Peyton to shake his hand and congratulate him as we boarded a tourist boat meant to show us a little of San Antonio’s Riverwalk. And then there was the young man trying to lure tourists into a haunted house and wax museum, who ushered us to an open cash register in the shade so we didn’t have to wait in line, his demeanor changing from goofy to grateful as he thanked my nephew for serving.
Because the new airmen are required to wear their dress uniforms while they celebrate with their families, they cannot blend in. That made for an interesting weekend of experiences because, for a lot of us, they represent much more than the individual accomplishment they are celebrating.
Which is why I understood and appreciated those who were moved to reach out, to connect, to say "Thank you." It is, in a way, a chance to remind them — and ourselves — that the sacrifice required to wear the uniform requires the best of us.
But it isn’t the only place we are our best.
Volunteering to serve in the U.S. military isn’t the only way to show affection and commitment to our country. Sometimes, commitment comes in the form of asking us to be what we say we are. Sometimes, we are at our best when we are addressing injustice right here in our hometowns.
A week before I traveled to San Antonio to celebrate my nephew’s graduation with him, the NFL passed a new rule punishing teams if players on the field didn’t show “proper respect” for the flag during the anthem.
This rule is an attempt to appease fans and sponsors who are upset that a handful of players chose kneeling during the National Anthem as a way to protest police violence against people of color and systemic racism in the criminal justice system.
They see it as disrespect for our country and its military. The man who started it, Colin Kaepernick, said from the start it was a protest of police brutality, which came in August 2016, after two years of black men losing their lives in police confrontations was brought to light through cell phone recordings and social media posts that led to increased media coverage.
For the first three preseason games, he sat on the bench during the anthem, and no one cared. Then someone took a picture, wrote about his reasons, and a controversy was born.
The protest of sitting was changed after consulting with a veteran, who suggested that kneeling could be both a protest and a show of respect. That’s the week his teammate Eric Reid joined him in protest. Both men are currently unsigned by any team, even as the protest spread to other sports.
It became a controversy the league didn’t want, and it was made worse when both the president and vice president entered the debate criticizing those who knelt, calling it an act of disrespect for our military. While other protests preceded Kaepernick’s, none impacted us like his.
We could ignore protest rallies of Black Lives Matter if they happened in cities we’d never visited and knew little about. But the reach of the NFL made it impossible to ignore or avoid the discussions sparked by those who chose to join Kaepernick — and those who chose to criticize him.
The fact is that the flag and that anthem represent far more than our military. They represent the ideals and principles our military protects, and maybe chief among those ideals are freedom and justice for all.
Patriots, like ideals, are sometimes easy to spot, understand and embrace. Other times, we may move among them, brush right past them, and not even see them for the heroes that they are.
My father is a former U.S. Marine who served valiantly in Vietnam, earning both a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. But he is no more a patriot than my mother, whose service and sacrifice aren’t something our society recognizes with a medal or award. His contributions as a police officer made our communities safer, while hers made the lives of her friends and neighbors easier.
I learned about service from both of them, but I also learned that the world recognizes his service, and it mostly ignores hers. My admiration for both of them is not easily summed up in words, but I will say that if this country is built on the lives and sacrifices of people like my parents, the cornerstone contribution belongs to people like my mother who toil in absolute faith and devotion without a single second of concern for when the world might notice.
The flag means different things to different people, depending on their service to this country and their experience as citizens of this country.
For me, the flag symbolizes love, hope and all the greatness to which we aspire.
For my mom, it symbolizes a country she loves, and when she sees it, she thinks of the young men like Lance Cpl. Blaine Alfred Welch, who grew up with her in Heber City, and was so determined to serve in the Vietnam War that, when he was denied entry in Utah, he traveled to Idaho where they took him. He was killed in action at age 20 — five days after I was born.
For my dad, it’s more a feeling in his soul than words he can summon.
“It means everything,” he said. “At the time, it meant everything I’d done and been involved with was worthwhile. It’s a symbol of so many things. I can’t give you one example.”
One of my friends, who served in both the Air Force and the Army, said it is sacred to many who serve because it drapes the coffins of those who don’t get to come home from war.
I have a Native American friend who sees broken promises and colonizers in the stars and stripes, right along with freedom and opportunity. Loving the flag, he said, is complicated for those with his experiences.
A friend who is an immigrant said the flag represents a better life and better opportunities. It’s not perfect, she said, but ordinary citizens have power here, and that’s worth respecting.
No single experience is more valid than others. And the beauty of the system we Americans espouse is that we’re capable of embracing dissent. Listening hasn’t made us weak, it’s helped us see more realities. Calls to change haven’t made us less than we hoped, they’ve allowed us to evolve stronger than we imagined.
On Saturday, three of Peyton's fellow Airmen joined us for the day. A man approached the boys as we ate dinner, shaking their hands, and asking each young man where he was from. He thanked them for their service to our country, and then he left. A few minutes later, I asked the waitress for our check.
“Oh, that man paid for your dinner,” the waitress said a bit sheepishly. “I thought he told you that when he was talking to you.”
The boys, who’d grown accustomed to salutes, handshakes and thank yous from strangers in the last few days, were deeply moved.
I wondered, however, if they’d have been as moved if they knew that kind of respect was required. I wondered if I’d still get a lump in my throat every I see the flag if my actions I had to take were dictated by my boss or my government.
What made these moments with my nephew so beautiful was that they were sincere and unprompted. They came from someone else’s gratitude, someone else’s shared patriotism. It didn’t have to be the same as ours, and we didn’t have to dissect it.
It is, in my opinion, what makes America’s brand of patriotism so unique and so strong. This country can mean different things to different people, and we can still line up next to each other and defend our shared ideals, whether that is through protest or standing to salute the flag.
I don’t know what will happen with the NFL’s policy, or how the players will handle it, but forced patriotism will not engender loyalty or love. Not for this country and not for each other.
This is where we decide what kind of country we want to be. Are we a country where people stand and salute out of fear of punishment? Or are we the country where people are free to do what moves them — whether that’s kneel to draw attention to injustice or anonymously buy a meal for some young airman celebrating a milestone?