I was a 19-year-old when I served in Vietnam as a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne.
Our operations (or Search and Destroy, as they were called) took place in the mountains of the Central Highlands. Our provisions were only what we could carry, with little protection from the elements. Inclement weather was never an issue, it was a lifestyle.
Vietnam had a little something for everyone; malaria, hookworm, dysentery and skin diseases not listed. Then you had your landmines, punji-pits, foot-long centipedes, scorpions and flocks of mosquitoes. If that was not enough, there were the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers who were altogether inhospitable. Friendly fire, weapons error and self-inflicted wounds filled in for what I might have left out.
I'll say this for the military; It strips away pre-conceived ideas of how things should be and shows you how they are.
In contrast, I have found civilian values lacking a military grass-roots philosophy that has defined so many of us. Civilians wring their hands at the slightest discomfort and demand what they may not have earned. They have so much of everything, they have forgotten what was precious. So I keep this in memory. I have earned it-
As a veteran, my flag is a symbol of those I have known. It is another 19-year-old in my platoon and when I salute it I do so not out of patriotism, but more in their memory.
It is a symbol of someone who stepped forward and said, "I no longer go to the back of the bus. Today I sit in front."
Its colors remind me of old friends Silva or Elrod, who stood up to the school bullies on behalf of those unable to defend themselves.
And in my way of thinking, our flag will always be Starr, a soldier and friend forever who gave me his last canteen of water in the dry highlands of Duc Pho, when he should have kept it for himself.
And in an inexplicable way, the flag waves in memory to guitarist and former paratrooper Jimi Hendrix in performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1966. Unrestrained by convention and typically Hendrix, he had walked offstage and sat in with the fans of Monterey. Colorfully dressed out in leatherwear and bandana sat the All-American. Captured forever in a Kodak moment and by all appearances, just another in the crowd.
And when I stand to attention, I think that if you could put the American flag to audio, what you would hear would be the roar of a Harley-Davidson; piratical, loving and freedom to go, as you will.