Sunday, June 15, 2008
President and Nancy Reagan file by the flag-draped caskets of victims of the April 18, 1983, bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon in an April 23, 1983 file photo. Photo courtesy Ronald Reagan Presidential Library
President Woodrow Wilson recognized during his first Flag Day address in 1915 that the freedoms the U.S. flag stands for weren't and never would be free.
"The lines of red are lines of blood, nobly and unselfishly shed by men who loved the liberty of their fellowship more than they loved their own lives and fortunes," he said. "God forbid that we should have to use the blood of America to freshen the color of the flag."
But American blood has spilled time and time again to preserve American liberties, most recently in the war against violent extremism. In this year's Flag Day Proclamation, President Bush calls on the nation to remember the troops who carry Old Glory before them "as they defend the liberties for which it stands."
"On Flag Day and during National Flag Week, we remember those in uniform whose courage and sacrifice inspire us here at home," Bush said. "We also remember the rich history of one of our oldest national symbols and reflect on our duty to carry our heritage of freedom into the future."
Four current or retired servicemembers recently shared their personal perspectives about how the flag has inspired them through their proudest as well as darkest days as a symbol of patriotism, strength and resilience.
9/11 Terror Attacks
Few Americans will forget the image of three firefighters raising an American flag over the World Trade Center ruins in New York just hours after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
But for Army Capt. Joe Minning and his fellow New York National Guard soldiers, many of them New York City firemen and police officers, the Ground Zero flag took on a very personal significance as they desperately sifted through the rubble looking for survivors.
"Seeing the flag raised above all of the rubble and ruins of the World Trade Center instilled a new sense of pride in me for our country," he said. "No matter what happens to the United States -- on foreign ground, on U.S. soil -- we, the American people, will always continue to move forward, rebuild and face any challenges that lie ahead"
Three years later, Minning and the "Fighting 69th" Brigade Combat Team would take that inspiration with them to Iraq, where they lost 19 soldiers securing Route Irish and its surrounding Baghdad neighborhoods during their year-long deployment.
Among those killed was Army Staff Sgt. Christian Engledrum, a New York firefighter who, like Minning, worked amid the dust and smoke immediately following the World Trade Center attack. Engledrum, the first New York City employee to die serving in Iraq, became a symbol of the unit that went from Ground Zero to Iraq's Sunni Triangle, and after his death, to the mountains of Afghanistan.
The flag and what it represents continue to motivate unit members during their current deployment to Afghanistan as embedded trainers for the Afghan National Army, he said.
Minning said he recognizes when he sees Old Glory flying at his tiny forward operating base there that he and his fellow soldiers are following in the footsteps of the earliest U.S. patriots and defending the same values they fought for.
"The flag is a symbol of everything the United States stands for -- from our founding fathers up until now, all that we have accomplished, and the hurtles our country has overcome," he said.
As a soldier, Minning said, he and his fellow soldiers recognize that it's up to them to continue carrying the torch forward.
"It is the American soldier who keeps the country moving forward and will never let it be taken down by any adversity. It is what we fight for and, if we fall in battle, what our coffins are draped with," he said. "And it's what we are committed to protecting and defending, no matter what the price."
The Iraq War
When thousands of people gathered in late April at the Cincinnati Red's Great American Ballpark, all eyes were on a platform at the pitchers' mound covered by the flag-draped casket of Army Sgt. Matt Maupin.
The mourners gathered to remember the 20-year-old Army reservist who went missing more than four years earlier when his convoy came under attack in April 2004. Insurgents released a videotape shortly after the incident showing him in captivity, and his whereabouts remained unknown until the Army found and positively identified his remains in March.
Command Sgt. Maj. Leon Caffie, the top enlisted Army Reserve soldier, was among countless people who had hoped and prayed for Maupin's safe return. As he joined the crowd in Ohio to honor and bid farewell to Maupin, Caffie looked out at thousands of hand-held flags waving in the stands, all surrounding Maupin's casket.
"It underscores the meaning and symbolism of the flag when you see it draped over the coffin of this young man who had the world going for him," Caffey said.
Maupin is among thousands of U.S. troops whose lives have been cut short at the hands of terrorists. Back in October 1983, 241 Marines were killed when a terrorist truck bomb struck their barracks in Beirut. In June 1996, 13 airmen died during the terror attack on Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. In October 2000, 17 crewmembers from USS Cole were killed when a terrorist bomb ripped through their ship at Aden, Yemen.
Then came the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States and the war on terror they ushered in.
Through it all, the flag has served as an unwavering source of inspiration that's unified America, Caffie said.
"It has endured a lot -- being dragged through streets and burned and disrespected and spit on and stepped on," he said.
"And yet it has survived and served as a nucleus that brings this country together across gender, ethnic and religious backgrounds," he said. "It is the American flag that has united us and will continue to inspire patriotism in this country."
Beirut Embassy Bombing
Back in April 1983, rescue workers picking through the rubble of what had been the U.S. Embassy in Beirut following a terrorist attack uncovered the body of 21-year-old Marine Cpl. Robert V. McMaugh. Beside his body lay the tattered remains of the U.S. flag that had once stood proudly beside his guard post in the embassy's main lobby.
McMaugh's fellow Marine security guards draped their fallen comrade in a fresh American flag and carried him away on a stretcher. A squad of Marines snapped to attention and saluted.
"It was a poignant moment," recalled retired Chief Warrant Officer Charles W. "Bill" Henderson, a spokesman attached to 22nd Marine Amphibious Unit in Lebanon at the time of the bombing. "Everyone had been digging and digging, then suddenly, everything stopped. Not a word was said. Seeing the body of a fellow Marine covered with the American flag, ... it was an electrifying moment."
While stationed in Beirut, Henderson said, he came to appreciate the flag, not just as a piece of material, but as a symbol of courage. "Each Marine (in Lebanon) wore an American flag on his shirt," he said. "It did more than show that we were Americans. It showed that we were representing this country and what it stands for: freedom for all people."
Twenty-five years later, Henderson said terrorist attacks that followed that initial salvo and the thousands of Americans who have died as a result have only deepened the flag's symbolism.
"What's behind it are the blood and tears of hundreds of thousands of soldiers who have sacrificed. The symbolism behind the flag is this long tradition of sacrifice to preserve liberty," he said.
"Yes, it is just a piece of cloth," he said. "But what it represents are the lives of thousands of Americans who have given everything for this nation -- who ask nothing in return but felt an obligation of duty to their country."
Henderson said he doesn't take disrespect for the flag lightly. "When you insult our flag, you insult the lives and the sacrifices of all the men and women who have served this country," he said.
On the other hand, honoring the flag is showing respect and appreciation for all they have done. "You are honoring everything that we, as a nation, have accomplished, what America has done, and what America represents to the world," he said.
Iranian Hostage Crisis
Now-retired Col. David M. Roeder remembers living without the freedoms he had worked to protect when he and more than 50 other Americans were taken hostage for 444 days in Iran in November 1979.
Roeder, assistant Air Force attache to the U.S. Embassy in Tehran at the time, watched helplessly as U.S. flag burnings became almost daily media events. His captors taunted the hostages by carrying garbage from one area of the embassy compound to another, wrapped in the American flag.
Through it all, Roeder said, he never lost faith in his country or the flag that symbolizes its ideals. "When you talk about a flag, whether it's standing in a place of honor at a ceremony or draped over a casket or waving from someone's house, you're talking about a symbol," he said.
"But the importance of that symbolism is monumental. It represents what we are, wherever we are in the world," he said.
"And no matter what anyone else says about it or does to it, the flag never loses dignity. It only gains dignity, because when someone attacks the American flag, it's because they recognize all that it represents and the greatness of this country."
Twenty-seven years after his release, Roeder, now 68, holds on to that symbolism with fervor. He flies a flag at his home in Pinehurst, N.C., and a summer home in Wisconsin every day. His pickup truck has not one, but several, flag stickers on it.
Like many Americans, he was moved by the show of Old Glory nationwide in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks, and said he wishes it had never ended. "Wouldn't it be great if you could keep that going?" he said. "It tells everyone who sees it who we are and what we stand for," he said.