Saturday, May 27, 2017

Honoring fallen on Memorial Day means honoring right to protest

I’m a former Green Beret and a former NFL player, and last year I decided to stand by then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick as he took a knee during the national anthem. He was kneeling to protest police brutality.

Kaepernick’s stance kicked up strong emotions across the nation. It kicked up strong feelings in me: I didn't agree with the reasons for Kaepernick's protest, but I certainly respected his right to do it. I wrote a letter that was published in The Army Times expressing as much. I also stated that I wanted to more closely understand what Kaepernick was experiencing.

As we prepare to honor our fallen heroes on Memorial Day, I'm reminded of Kaepernick's national anthem protest. And as a veteran who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, I hope that we can think of taking a knee in a much less divisive way — as an opportunity to engage in productive conversation, to understand someone who is different and to consider that someone else's opinion (about police or the meaning behind our national anthem) can be just as valid as our own.

The day after The Army Times published my letter, I met Kaepernick in person, right before his game against San Diego. We talked about the fact that he was sitting on the bench and about how his protests were being perceived by the public. I also showed him text messages and emails from friends of mine. Some were ex-military and thought it was good that I was meeting the professional ball player, but didn't understand Kaepernick's choice to protest so ardently against the anthem. One of these men had just left the tarmac in Seattle where a fallen Green Beret had been carried off a plane. He was killed in service and an American flag had been draped over his casket.

With an attempt at humility and open ears, I had engaged someone who thought differently from me and who had received harsh ridicule. I tried simply to understand where he was coming from, even though I disagreed with his tactics.

Before that game against the San Diego Chargers, Kaepernick began taking a knee (instead of sitting on the bench) during the anthem — definitely still protesting, but doing so alongside his brothers.

That night, I stood on the field beside him with my hand on my heart. I was proud of him in that moment, understanding that he was willing to listen as well.

People from extreme ends of the political spectrum continued to hate. I was called a disgrace to the Green Berets by a brother in arms, and told by Black Lives Matter supporters to stop turning Kaepernick into an Uncle Tom. I now stood in the radical middle.
In difference, finding solidarity

To put it mildly, my open mindedness put me in the minority. Kaepernick’s supporters and detractors had one thing in common. Whatever their take on his actions, most of them simply took to the Internet and shouted loudly.

People in the military come from all walks of life, and they are forced to work together: rich and poor, gay and straight, black and white, city and country, Republican and Democrat. They set aside their differences and work toward something bigger, something essential. Perhaps that’s why veterans, in my experience, tend to be open-minded. They’re passionate about their ideals. Hell, they are willing to die for them. But they’ll at least listen to what others have to say. In fact, that free exchange of ideas is one of the things our servicemembers fight to protect.

I am a footnote in the Kaepernick story. According to The Seattle Times, he tried out this week with my former team, the Seattle Seahawks.
I wish I could say our conversation sparked a national wave of civility that improved all of our lives. But it happened last September, and I’m afraid that’s simply not the case. I’ve watched in dismay as the shouting has gotten louder, the positions more strident, news delivery more partisan and algorithmic, the national discourse rougher. According to Gallup, only 31% of Americans say they are satisfied with the United States. Kaepernick's protest hurt me. But so does our national mood. Nothing hurts more than fighting for your country overseas and returning home to division.


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