One of the strongest brands we have in America is the flag. Red and white stripes. Fifty white stars against a blue field. Like so many in our country, I never get tired of seeing it.
Of course, it means different things to different people, but in many respects, it represents the same things to most people. Freedom is probably the one idea that most readily comes to mind.
Can you imagine what that flag looks like to the families awaiting the safe return of military men and women coming home from overseas? Or what a World War II veteran thinks about when he stands for the National Anthem and faces the stars and stripes at a baseball game?
I read an article recently about a group of freshly naturalized U.S. citizens and in the accompanying photo, each with a smile on his or her face, proudly held a small red, white and blue flag. I wondered what that flag meant to them.
A few years ago, I wrote a family history and not surprisingly, I learned that my ancestors were drawn to America for the freedom to live a life less restrictive than in the countries they left. America was and still is viewed as a land of opportunity, but that would not be possible without the freedoms we enjoy and that are guaranteed by our democratic system.
These thoughts are all abstract unless you or someone you know put something on the line to protect our system of freedoms and democracy.
Before I was born, my father and his brothers enlisted in the U.S. Army and Navy. They were deployed in locations around the world to face enemies in the Pacific and Europe.
One uncle told me the story of how he was left for dead in what was later called the Battle of the Bulge. For three days he laid in the cold, hoping someone would help him. He wasn’t much for detail when he told his story, but it gave me the impression he went through quite a bit that winter. The flag meant something to him.
During Viet Nam, I was too young to serve, but I remember the older boys in the neighborhood would often come back on leave, wearing their sharp Marine, Navy or Army uniforms. At that point, they were proud of who they were and what they represented. At first you’d see larger groups of them together at the corner store in their uniforms, laughing and joking and catching up. But after a while, the groups got smaller. I remember a more muted tone here and there when we’d find out that one of our neighborhood boys wasn’t coming home.
As an altar boy, I served several funerals of vets and was always transfixed with the precise and ritualistic manner with which the flag was so reverently handled and presented to surviving family members.
More recently, we all have had the opportunity to know and see our family members, friends and neighbors go off to places like Afghanistan and Iraq. And whether our experience is personal or if we just learn about it through old and new media, the sacrifices they make for our freedoms are all too real and all too current.
Memorial Day is commonly thought of as the first three-day weekend of summer and its unofficial kick-off. We celebrate with picnics and parades, usually. Another Memorial Day tradition for many is to visit a cemetery where a loved one is memorialized with fresh flowers, and if the loved one is a vet, a bright new U.S. flag.
That’s a tradition I picked up just a few years ago when my own Army veteran father died. Yesterday, I visited his final resting place and that of so many other vets. A neatly trimmed field of red, white and blue flags. Not a sorrowful place on a weekend like this. A place of honor and respect where the flag reminds us of so many who served and who risked their lives to protect our American way of life.
The flag is an iconic brand not because of what it looks like but because of what it represents to those willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for it. The act of remembering is why we call it Memorial Day. Can there be anything more powerful than that?
Note about the photo. My uncle was Staff Sgt. Lawrence O'Brien (back row, second from right), who flew numerous missions over Europe in World War II. He earned the Army's Distinguished Flying Cross. He never came home.