Thursday, June 14, 2007

Flag Day: O'er the Land of the Free

Oh, Say Can You See...

Not long ago, like many Americans, I used to see the flag and not feel anything. More precisely, I barely recognized that it was there. It was simply some red, white and blue material hanging on a flag pole at the post office, the bank or outside a house. During parades or special events, I would place my hand over my heart, say the pledge of allegiance and sing the national anthem. I did these things because that is what I was supposed to do, not because I felt like I should or because I believed it meant anything beyond a perfunctory nod to ceremony and tradition.

Over the Ramparts We Watched...

Like many Americans, I experienced an epiphany on a bright Tuesday morning in early September 2001. It was beautiful out, I was late for work and trying to figure out a way to play hookie from the office when I turned on the TV and saw the great tragedy of our times. As I watched, I went through an entire roll of emotions: numb, confused, anxious, sad, angry. Over and over again until I was washed out. Finally, I felt the great swell of pride as "over the ramparts we watched" our flag rose above the ashes, smoke and ruins of the WTC and the Pentagon.

It was at that moment that I finally realized what Francis Scott Key must have felt when he penned his famous poem, standing on the deck of a ship in the harbor, seeing the flag over Ft McHenry still waving in "the dawn's early light" after a night of fearsome bombardment. He knew that "our flag was still there" and, thus, so was our country, just as I was re-assured of the same.

From that day forward, every day and every event, I have grown to understand the meaning of that flag and I have loved it more than I have ever loved it before. I have learned to love freedom and never take it for granted. I have learned to love being an American.

Gave proof through the night...

I now know that our flag is taken down at night to protect it from damage by harsh elements or those enemies who might tear it down and our nation while we sleep. Just as we are protected, day and night, by our military men and women around the world, while we sleep or go about our daily business, never knowing or thinking about danger because they stand watch.

Our flag is illuminated at night to represent "the rocket's red glare", as the flag continued to wave all through the night of that historic bombardment. It signifies the continuous light of freedom shining down on this nation and that it shall never be dimmed. I know that our flag is raised in the morning, not simply because it was taken down the night before, but because it signifies that our nation is still here, one more day, free.

Oh, say does that star spangled banner still wave...

I have seen our flag whipping violently in stormy winds, just as our nation has been whipped by the winds of war, struggle and controversy. I have seen our flag waving gently in the wind, from one side to the other, just as we have sometimes wavered, in what some call "inconsistency", as we have struggled to balance our ideas, our freedom, with the needs of a growing and diverse nation. I have seen our flag lay dormant, without a breeze to stir it, as we have sometimes done when we have turned inwards or experienced great prosperity, hopeful of a peaceful future.

I have seen our flag dragged on the ground and stepped upon by dissidents within our country who believe that we have not lived up to our ideas or believe that they have been "stepped on" by our government and our laws. I have seen our flag burned to ashes by our enemies just as they have hoped to destroy our nation and its ideas. It has pained me to see such acts, not only because I love our flag, but because it represents our people and our ideas and it is this that is being attacked, threatened and disrespected.

Yet, for all the damage to the material, our ideas, our freedom remains. They may destroy that flag, but they cannot destroy our nation, our people or our ideas. That flag may be gone, but I can turn and see it still waving over our nation's capitol, at the post office, in front of my house and on the neighbors house down the street. It still waves, just as we continue to survive and spread the idea to every new citizen and from nation to nation.

O'er the land of the free...

Our flag represents our nation. Not only our ideas, but the very people for which it stands. It is made up of many strips of cloth held together by a strong thread that can withstand troubled winds and stormy weather. We are a nation of many people, held together by the common thread of our ideas, strong because it was woven together for over two centuries. That all men are created equal, endowed, not by a king or a government, but by a higher force with "unalienable rights" of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". Like us, the white stripes would be nothing without the red. The blue field would be meaningless without its many stars. Each piece being equally important and serves an equal purpose: to represent all of our people. Without the thread that holds the flag together, it would fall to pieces on the ground, just as we would fall without the thread that binds us together. That thread, that idea, is freedom.

And the home of the brave...

I have seen our flag flying over military bases in war zones and peaceful nations. I have seen it flying over ships at sea from one end of the world to another. I have seen men and women in uniform saluting it in far away places with names we cannot pronounce. It did not get there because we are a conquering nation, subjugating others, but because those who serve under that flag have defended it, defended our nation, our freedom and the freedom of every nation and peoples at every point of the compass. That flag reminds them, where ever they may go, however far, however long, their home is here and remains forever free because they bravely serve.

I have seen our flag draped lovingly over the casket of fallen soldiers and old warriors who have given their last full measure in defense of that freedom. Our flag, representing our nation, embraces them one last time, in thanks for that service.

I have seen our flag folded precisely in a triangle, blue field with white stars facing out, representing the eternal heavens to which we have commended our fallen. It represents the eternal rest which they have earned through their brave service. It represents the eternal hope of our nation to remain forever free.

I have seen our flag passed solemnly to grieving families as the last material gift their loved one could give. The last embrace the brave shall ever receive as their loved ones hold the flag tightly in their arms. And, the final, most priceless treasure, one more minute, one more hour, one more day of freedom paid for by their service and sacrifice.

I have seen our flag absorb the tears of mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, wives, husbands, sons and daughters. "On behalf of a grateful nation" it comforts them in their time of grief. Their tears remind us of the cost to remain free and that we should be forever appreciative that these brave souls serve and sometimes die on our behalf, even when we have forsaken them.

The often quoted Thomas Jefferson once said that, "the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots". However, it is the tears of those left behind, absorbed by our flag, that goes straight to our roots, to our hearts and reminds us to be strong in the face of adversaries and troubles, to count the cost dearly and hold our freedom that much more closely.

I have seen our flag placed upon the graves of our fallen, on rows upon rows of white marble stone, in remembrance of their service under that flag and the sacrifice they gave to keep our flag flying and our nation free. It tells our fallen that their sacrifice was not made in vain; because of them our nation still stands. It signifies our infinite gratitude as on the first day when we laid the flag upon them and gave it to their family. Wherever that grave may be, from Arlington to Normandy, from Africa to the Philippines, the placing of the flag claims that land to be the property of the United States of America, forever free, bought and paid for by the blood of our citizens on behalf of our nation. That land becomes "the home of the brave".

Finally, I have seen our flag placed upon the shoulder of citizens who continue to step forward to defend our nation, our people, our ideas and our freedom.

Through this eternal cycle we remain the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Franklin K. Lane, Secretary of the Interior, delivered a 1914 Flag Day address in which he repeated words he said the flag had spoken to him that morning: "I am what you make me; nothing more. I swing before your eyes as a bright gleam of color, a symbol of yourself."

I hope, from this day forward, when you see the flag that your eyes will not pass over it, but maybe linger for a moment and feel a swell of pride as it waves above you. When it is presented, please honor it by removing your hat and placing your hand upon your heart in respect. Not simply as a symbol of our nation or in allegiance to such, but for all of those things it has been for us, for all the ideas it stands for and all those who have given us the privilege of living free beneath it to make of it what we would.

Long may it wave.

Find out more about our flag at USFLAG.ORG

- May no soldier go unloved