We are forgetting someone in this NFL vs. fans fight. They are the most important people among us. The ones who sent loved ones off to war never to see them again. These families have had to sit silently watching a bunch of spoiled, mostly incoherent dunces spit on the flag that bears the blood of their loved ones.
That flag is draped over coffins that arrive in Dover, Delaware. The homecoming the loved ones had imagined, planned for, hoped for was destroyed. Instead, they stand on a tarmac and have to somehow move leaden legs forward to greet the one who didn’t make it. This is all that is left. After a lifetime of hugs and smiles, kisses and laughs, what’s left is a box draped in a flag. That flag, carefully folded up and given to spouses, children, and parents, is supposed to reassure us that the sacrifice of our loved one is worth it.
My cousin, 1st Lt. Damon Leehan of the Oklahoma National Guard, was one of the many who came home under a flag from Afghanistan. I have avoided writing about it for many years. I thank God that few people today know what a military funeral is like. It was the hardest thing many of us have ever gone through. Unlike a civilian service that is over in a matter of two or three days, a military funeral stretches on for weeks. There was the waiting for his body to be brought back to the United States (which took almost ten days), the greeting at Dover Air Force Base, the homecoming in Oklahoma days later, and finally, the funeral. None of these things happened in quick succession. It stretched on for agonizing weeks.
The pain is indescribable. Helping a widow choose not one dress but four different dresses to honor her husband at four different ceremonies, wondering how you’re going to make it through yet another day while trying to keep a cheerful face for the toddlers left behind is a Herculean task. Tears keep coming even when you are dried out and dehydrated. Strangers live in the house, dictating your every move, upholding protocol, making sure all the papers (and there are reams) are signed. Enduring protestors who show up with “God Hates Fags” signs on the worst day of your life. Wanting to run out on the tarmac to hold up your sister because she might fall down under the weight of it, but you can’t because she has to do this alone. The soldier who left his post to escort the body of his friend — never leaving his side, sleeping next to his coffin. The jarring crack of the gun salute. Little children standing graveside looking bewildered, one grasping a softie and a bottle. The tears on the face of a hardened soldier as he kneels to deliver Old Glory to the achingly young widow, who isn’t yet 30, with a soft word no one else can hear. It is stunning in its cruelty and harshness and equally breathtaking in its honor and beauty.
Five years later I can’t think about it without losing my breath and choking on tears. Watching my dear Audrey lay her face on that flag in the 112-degree heat of an Oklahoma summer heat wave was the most horrible and beautiful thing I ever saw. Beautiful because the willful little girl I knew growing up showed the strength of her grit that day. She didn’t fall down. She didn’t collapse. She bore it because she had to. She had dignity on the day she lost everything. There wasn’t a person in that crowd on that day who cared if the person next to them was a Democrat or a Republican. We knew that this sacrifice we were witnessing was for all of us. War is no respecter of skin color and all blood runs red.
While it’s true that Damon died protecting the First Amendment rights of all Americans to peaceably protest, it is a shame that those partaking in the protest of our anthem and flag refuse to consider how this is affecting our Gold Star families. Some men play a game for a living. Some men give their lives in service to their country and their families are left behind to bear the cost. The cost is so high that it cannot be put into words. It cannot be described. A son who does not remember his Daddy who loved him beyond anything. A daughter who cries because she is forgetting her toddler memories of him. The cost is too high to kneel down when you should stand.
The flag does not symbolize a president or a party. It is supposed to represent all of America and the sacrifice it took to get here. It honors the nameless soldiers, our neighbors and friends, who gave up everything so we could have our dreams. It wasn’t just those who served who died; their families’ dreams also died with them. They may find new ones, but we owe them the basic decency of acknowledging that they lost everything. The future they imagined and worked and planned for is gone, reduced to photographs and mementos and one beautiful American flag that sits high on a shelf.
I had to put my flag away for over a year after Damon was killed. The sight of it filled me with rage and anger. I felt that he was too good for you out there. And today is the first time since then I’ve felt that way again. You don’t deserve it, those of you kneeling in front of that flag or arguing on behalf of the NFL. You don’t deserve the sacrifice of this man who died for you. His children didn’t deserve to lose a father to keep you free. You don’t deserve your freedom because you don’t understand or value it or know whom you owe for it. The only consolation I have is that there are many of us who do understand it and for that reason, I can fly my flag again. But I will not watch you spit on it. You are dishonoring the sacrifice of every family in America — white, black, Democrat, Republican, gay or straight — who gave all when you do this. We are, all of us, under that flag. And we are all indebted to the blood of patriots who have gone before and who paved the way for the abolition of slavery and for the civil rights movement. You are ripping open wounds that deserve to heal for your political games. Shame on you.
Audrey never published this photo before this week, which should tell you how saddened and hurt she is by the political posturing over something that should never be politicized. Until this moment, this photograph was a private memory that wasn’t even shared outside the immediate family. Our flag is for all of us. Our anthem honors all Americans, especially those who died preserving our freedoms. It’s time we remembered the Gold Star families among us. If for nothing else, stand for them.