In about 1975 or so, the US Army was a shambles. Morale was in the gutter. Soldiers were permitted to wear their hair longer to blend in better and did not wear their uniforms off post. Vietnam was still fresh and raw.
We lived in base housing. I grew up surrounded by coarse Sergeant Majors who had fought in WW2, Korea and Vietnam. The men were fresh home from Vietnam and PTSD was the norm. The old soldiers would have never admitted to it but my best friend’s dad lost it one day and beat his sister with a coat hanger. They put him out of the Army. No one talked about it.
The sergeant who lived two doors down was a Ranger instructor. I thought him the scariest man I had ever met. He would come home after work and sit in the dining room and stare at the wall until his dinner was put in front of him. I remember him describing doing night recon outside a POW camp deep inside North Vietnam and having a Vietcong guard pee on him. He cut the man’s throat as he left.
I mention this because they killed a lot of kids–they don’t send men to war. They send kids to war. The ones who come back, come back men. “Baby killer” strikes too terribly close to home when you are that raw. These men were haunted by their ghosts–the friends who had been broken and died crying for their mothers and the eyes of the boys who had been their enemies as they did the same in German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Chinese or Vietnamese.
My dad hung out with some World War II legends—partly I think because he never met a stranger; partly because he’d earned a place among them though he was still a kid among those veterans having not been deployed to Korea and only serving two tours in Vietnam. I remember those grizzled old sergeant majors and their stories well.
You don’t call them heroes. They hate that. It shames them. They were hidden behind a rock or a tree when the real heroes died. The real heroes didn’t come home. Those with medals only tried to save better men than themselves. They only fought like madmen in rage at the death of better men.
I remember riding through main post one day with my dad in an old VW beetle that my dad had built out of two junkers. When “Retreat” sounded, my father slammed on the brakes and jumped out of the car, stood ramrod straight and saluted as “Retreat” was quickly followed by “To the Colors” and somewhere out of sight the flag was being lowered.
My dad stood at attention while I watched. I do not know what passed through my father’s mind as he stood there. My father felt things deeply though he rarely showed it.
There was something holy in that moment that day that passed from father to son. My father was a little misty eyed when he climbed back into the car and shook off the emotion that had taken hold of him and we continued on our way in silence. It sealed for me a lesson my father taught me with his life: everyone dies, but not everyone lives for something worth dying for.
The American Flag stands for Freedom. The Red is the blood of sacrifice poured out; it “represents hardiness and courage, the White signifies purity and innocence, the Blue, signifies vigilance, perseverance and justice.” In short, the Flag represents the three elements of Christian liberty: courage, holiness and righteousness. It is a reminder of what is required to maintain freedom and not fall back into bondage. This Flag is not the symbol of our government. It does not represent what our government says or does.
It is draped across the caskets of our soldiers and sailors and folded tightly twelve times. It is folded in the shape of a minuteman’s hat to remind us of the citizen soldiers who first fought for our freedom in the American Revolution. Each fold has a meaning:
The first fold of our flag is a symbol of life.
The second fold is a symbol of our belief in the eternal life.
The third fold is made in honor and remembrance of the veteran departing our ranks who gave a portion of life for the defense of our country to attain a peace throughout the world.
The fourth fold represents our weaker nature, for as American citizens trusting in God, it is to Him we turn in times of peace as well as in times of war for His divine guidance.
The fifth fold is a tribute to our country, for in the words of Stephen Decatur, “Our country, in dealing with other countries, may she always be right; but it is still our country, right or wrong.”
The sixth fold is for where our hearts lie. It is with our heart that we pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
The seventh fold is a tribute to our Armed Forces, for it is through the Armed Forces that we protect our country and our flag against all her enemies, whether they be found within or without the boundaries of our republic.
The eighth fold is a tribute to the one who entered in to the valley of the shadow of death, that we might see the light of day, and to honor mother, for whom it flies on mother’s day.
The ninth fold is a tribute to womanhood; for it has been through their faith, love, loyalty and devotion that the character of the men and women who have made this country great have been molded.
The tenth fold is a tribute to father, for he, too, has given his sons and daughters for the defense of our country since they were first born.
The eleventh fold, in the eyes of a Hebrew citizen, represents the lower portion of the seal of King David and King Solomon, and glorifies, in their eyes, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The twelfth fold, in the eyes of a Christian citizen, represents an emblem of eternity and glorifies, in their eyes, God the Father, the Son, and Holy Ghost.
When the flag is completely folded, the stars are uppermost, reminding us of our national motto, “In God we Trust.” (from USFLAG.ORG)
But to a soldier’s son, the American Flag is far more personal–it is Grandma Betsy’s quilt, lovingly laid over her fallen son’s casket, folded by his brothers and presented to his sons. It sits in our house to remind us of the lesson a soldier teaches his son with his life: The only things worth living for are the things worth dying for.
My father was a ridge runner from Kentucky and I always thought him a common man. I didn’t know the meaning of the medals in the cardboard box until after my father died and I received my own tri-cornered flag. I didn’t know that other soldiers thought my dad was a hero—that the Bronze Stars for Valor and the Silver Star remain uncommon awards for heroism in combat.
I may be frustrated with the American people and angry with my government but we are a democratic republic. Our representatives represent us–our ignorance, our wimpiness and cowardice, our vices, conceits and prejudices, our disregard, disinterest and pettiness–they are in all points our representatives, but they are not the Flag.
If there is a problem in America, it is not our Flag–it is we, the people. There are checks and balances against our government to hold it back. There are no checks and balances on our people except the courage, holiness and righteousness required to keep us free.
We do not pledge allegiance to our president. We pledge allegiance to our flag. We pledge allegiance to the courage, holiness and righteousness demanded of those who wish to live free.
So when the National Anthem plays, I stand—ramrod straight, as my father did that day so many years ago—the way a man must who pledges himself to such high ideals in hope that by the grace of God he may live up to them. I remove my hat to honor God (1 Cor 11:4) and cover my heart with my hand or hat to pledge myself to a Flag that still calls to those who love Freedom and rallies them to wage war against the enemies of Freedom: ignorance, vice, cowardice, conceit, prejudice, pettiness and dishonor both foreign and domestic.
I live my life for that which is worth dying for—here I stand—a soldier’s son.
Ken Van Horn is pastor of My Father’s House Family Church at 501 Broad Street in Cusseta, Georgia and author of the book: “A Greater Reward,” which is available from Amazon on Kindle. Questions for him should be asked in the form below. You may also contact him through Facebook or follow him on Twitter.