HomeNewsCommentariesDisplay

Memories - remembering those flags

BALTIMORE -- As the country pauses to honor those who have fought and died for this country, I have a question:

Where were you ten years ago?

In 2003, then-President George W. Bush landed on an aircraft carrier returning from the Gulf of Arabia. Someone ¬-not he personally--hoisted a banner stating "Mission Accomplished".

The mainstream media used that image of the president, dressed in a flight suit with the banner in the background, to imply the war was over.

It was not over. Everyone in the military knew it was not over. We did, however, hope that it would soon wind down.

In fact, there were two distinctly different wars happening in that region. Afghanistan became a long-term engagement while Iraq evolved into an insurgency.

What did we learn?

When I returned from my deployment in Operation Iraqi Freedom, I hoped that in ten years Americans could visit that rich culture in a good degree of safety.

I was wrong. Dead wrong. While the Middle East is still a rough part of the world, it is a safer place since the Air Force began flying southern and northern watch missions after the original Gulf War that ended in 1992.

That's right--the Air Force. Since Operation Desert Storm, the Air Force has been conducting combat missions for more than a decade after most of the troops came home from then President George H.W. Bush's successful removal of Sadamm Hussein's Kuwaiti invasion force in 1992.

Everyone knows their own family's sacrifices. Lately, I stopped to think about Jake's sacrifices.

When I came to basic training as a 32-year-old trainee, I had to make Jake understand why I had to go. I could not have any real contact with him for two months. When I went off for technical school, again I had to leave him, this time for four months.

A year later, I volunteered to deploy. Now Jake and I wouldn't even be on the same continent for at least three to six months. Jake never really understood these absences. He would yell at me every time I came home. It took him a long time to forgive me.

Next I flew across the pond to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2008 to help rebuild an elementary school as well as a memorial to fallen Americans. Again, Jake chewed me out. In 2010, I left for Afghanistan within a few days of Christmas and New Year's Day.

During that last deployment, Jake's health failed. The doctor said he wouldn't make it. My wife and daughter were having a difficult time. So was I. When you're on the other side of the planet, there's nothing more frustrating than knowing there is nothing you can do for your family.

My family did everything they could for Jake--my daughter even carried him back and forth to the backyard. My daughter was struggling herself. The reason I finally got to come home on emergency leave was because of her health.

I never finished the tour, but I did manage to document my unit's homecoming. The article has an element to it that stands out to this day. After asking permission, I took a picture of a little boy waiting with his mother at the Baltimore airport. He held a sign for his daddy welcoming him home.

And they waited. And waited. Their Airman was one of the last to turn in his weapon and process through customs. The little boy immediately ran to his father, who bent down in a catcher's stance. He held him tight as his wife joined them in a three-way hug. It was beautiful.

The little boy cried to his dad, "Where have you been, Daddy?"

I know I will always remember that Sunday afternoon. By now, that boy has probably forgotten ever asking that question. But I know he remembers that reunion, and how proud he is of his father for serving and his mother for keeping the ship afloat at home.

There are countless military reunions; you can search the Internet for them. They happen every day at that airport. You should go to one sometime to cheer on returning flights of Soldiers, Airmen, Sailors, Marines and Coasties.

As for Jake, he was in too much pain to go on. He survived for just a little more than two years. I made every moment count.


To clarify this story: Jake was my beagle and the first dog I raised as a pup. The only dog I ever had to let go. It was the Sunday before Easter when he struggled to get up and look out the sliding glass door. He had lost his appetite. He no longer tried to play or chew on a toy. It was his time.

Two days later, I took leave to spend the day with him. Every time he looked at me, I got out of my chair and scratched behind his ears and kissed the top of his head. I put off taking him to the vet as long as I could. This time he did not resist going to the doggy hospital. When the doc came with the needle, he didn't flinch. He wasn't afraid to die.
It's been more than a year and I still miss him like it was yesterday. He was my wingman, my battle buddy. We took long walks in areas I would not go alone. One time, he ran the entire 13-mile circuit around BWI when I was on roller blades. When I could not sleep, he would guide me on a 2 a.m. walk through the golf course.

Fortunately, I have found a new K-9. Along with a supportive family, I march along.

This spring, like every spring, I think about my previous assignments. I remember the accomplishments made by the members of the United States Armed Forces.

Yesterday, Flag Day, I watched the Baltimore community honor military members at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in downtown Baltimore City.

Our fighter pilots gave the Oriole organization a flag they flew on a combat mission during their latest deployment to Afghanistan. The base commander at Fort Meade presided over the swearing in of new recruits hoping to become soldiers. Three veterans, along with that officer, threw out the ceremonial first pitch. Another soldier sang the national anthem inspired by a poem that Francis Scott Key wrote while observing the war of 1812 here in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. The Oriole's manager, Buck Showwalter, spoke with a wounded warrior on the baseball field who is transitioning into the civilian world. I continued to take pictures.

As I left the ballpark, the home team held a slight lead. I walked by a replica of words that were outside of the now demolished Memorial Stadium which was located in northern Baltimore City, words that never fail to inspire:

TIME WILL NOT DIM THE GLORY OF THEIR DEEDS

THE CITIZENS OF THE STATE OF MARYLAND DEDICATE THIS MEMORIAL TO ALL VETERANS WHO SO VALIANTLY FOUGHT AND SERVED IN OUR NATIONS WARS WITH ETERNAL GRATITUDE TO THOSE WHO MADE THE SUPREME SACRIFICE TO PRESERVE EQUALITY AND FREEDOM THROUGHOUT THE WORLD

Many players of the professional teams and fans saw those words affixed at the old stadium; we can only hope they were inspired as I am now.

It made me happy to remember where I was ten years ago:

After buying over 100 flags, I gave them out in packs of ten or 12.

We all planted them around our tent city in celebration of the upcoming holiday, Flag Day.
I remember being inspired that night and quickly wrote this poem before going to sleep.

It wasn't published electronically, just printed in the 20 or so copies of the base newspaper that was posted around Masirah Island, Oman in the Gulf of Arabia.

To be an American Flag

I am an American Flag
I go where I am needed
I go when I am called
I give it my all.

I fly high and proud
I fly strong and stiff
I fly day and night
I will not shy from a fight.

I inspire
I conjure up dreams
I stand for a proud past
I will always last.

I am a symbol of freedom
I am a symbol of strength
I am symbol of our past
I am a reminder to make every moment last.

Do not forget me
Do not leave me behind
Do not disrespect me
Do not take me for granted - I am an American flag.