document

Testimony of Veteran Joseph E. Rogers Against the Flag Desecration Amendment

Document Date: March 23, 1999

Testimony of Veteran Joseph E. Rogers
Against the Flag Desecration Amendment
before the
House Judiciary Committee

Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, it is a privilege for me to appear before this Subcommittee and testify against the proposal to amend the Constitution to prohibit flag desecration.

I am a retired Naval Reserve Captain and a Desert Storm veteran. My service in the Navy spanned more than 27 years. I entered the Naval Service in August, 1969 as a NROTC Midshipman at Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I was commissioned on May 19, 1973 and reported to the Naval Nuclear Power School, Vallejo, California to begin nuclear propulsion training.

In June, 1974, I was assigned to USS ARCHERFISH (SSN678) homeported in Groton, Connecticut. From August, 1974 to November, 1977 I served in ARCHERFISH as a division officer During this period the ship participated in two independent operations of great value to the United States for which ARCHERFISH received both the Meritorious and Navy Unit Commendations.

On December 26, 1990, I was recalled to Active Duty in support of Operation Desert Shield/Storm, reporting to Carrier Group Seven onboard USS RANGER (CV61). I stood watches as the Flag Watch Officer while the Staff was both Arabian Gulf Batter Commander and Battle Force Commander and Battle Force ASUW Commander participating in the destruction of more than 108 Iraqi craft.

My military awards include the Navy Commendation Medal, two Navy Unit Commendations, two Meritorious Unit Citations, two Battle Efficiency “E”, Naval Expeditionary medal, two National Defense Medals, Southwest Asia Service Medal (with two stars), Kuwaiti Liberation Medal, Naval Sea Service Ribbon, three Naval and Marine Corps Overseas awards, and the Armed Forces Reserve Medal.

I am married to the former Catherine Terranova of Revere, Massachusetts. We reside in Richardson, Texas with our daughter, Mary Catherine.

I am opposed to this amendment because it does not support the freedom of expression and the right to dissent. These are core principles embodied under our Constitution that I volunteered to support and defend. It would be the ultimate irony for me to place myself in harm’s way and for my family to sacrifice to gain other nations’ freedom and not to protect our freedom here at home. That’s why I am here today.

I volunteered to join the Navy at the time in our nation’s history that when there were innumerable vehement and destructive protests and dissents against the Vietnam War. It was my choice to join since my draft number was around 264. The protests occurring at college campuses around the country including my own took many forms — there were flag burnings, draft card burnings, marches and sit-ins. These issues took on even greater significance when, during the Spring of my first year of college, students my own age were killed in anti-war protests at Kent State University.

In light of those events, I remember being questioned and questioning myself about how I could morally reconcile my decision to join the military given the dissenting voices and arguments put forth by the anti-war protesters and my peers. The protesters caused me to reflect upon my decision. I reflected on the loss of tens of thousands of American lives fighting totalitarianism in a far off land and my decision to participate in the military that carried out the war.

It was not easy, but it did help me to think about what I was doing and more importantly – why!!

I only had to look at my own oath to get the answer: “I …… do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter, so help me God.”

Ultimately, my responsibility was to support and defend the protestors’ under the First Amendment to the Constitution to freely express their opinion, even if I disagreed with what they were saying.

So, it’s the Constitution that I am sworn to uphold. It would be wrong to take an oath to uphold the Constitution and then to support a reduction in the rights granted under it. That’s what I did for my wife and daughter and every other American.

As I look back over my service in the military, I realize that all of the enemies that I and my colleagues defended against were totalitarian regimes – regimes in which the act of flag burning or the criticism of the government would be a crime. When I think of my own career – it was the Cold War, Operation Desert Storm and the defense of the Republic of Korea that dominated my service.

Whether the Soviet Union, Iraq or North Korea, the issue was always the same – suppression of freedom and its outward expression and the right to dissent.

I am offended by the thought of anyone burning our flag because it has special meaning to me.

I know that it must have been painful for Vietnam veterans and their families especially those who were imprisoned in North Vietnam, to see the flag being burned and to see all the protests and to hear the dissenting voices. I imagine it was quite disheartening. I remember thinking several times during Operation Desert Storm that I was blessed to have the public support which my countrymen who fought in Vietnam did not have. It was a stark lesson in the impact of expression and political dissent, and while I felt badly for the pain they went through, I realized that the real fundamental truths demanded that it be that way – we had to have freedom of expression even when it hurt because that was the truest test of our dedication to the belief that we have that right.

After college graduation, I remember as a young Naval Officer standing at attention on the deck of my submarine looking across the Thames River in Groton Connecticut at taps, feeling proud to be an American- proud to be part of the team that was both keeping America safe and fighting against totalitarianism and its spread during the Cold War. As a reservist, I remember the many drill weekends at quarters in the morning saluting the flag as it was paraded. As reservists, we knew that we might be recalled to leave our families on short notice and support the active duty forces in places like Korea and the Middle East to fight for the freedom of Americans and other peoples. And I consider this an honor, and I know that my family shared my feelings.

So, the pride and honor I feel is not really in the flag per se. It’s in the principles that it stands for and the people who have defended them. My pride and admiration is in our country, its people and its fundamental principles. I am grateful for the many heroes of our country – like the two A-6 pilots who lived in the next hall down from me on USS Ranger who lost their lives the first night of Desert Storm.

To this day, that pride and admiration is what I feel each and every time I stand, face the flag, and come to attention. I love this country, its people, and what it stands for. But all the sacrifices of those who went before me would be for naught, if an amendment were added to the Constitution that cut back on our First Amendment rights for the first time in the history of our great nation. After all, our nation was born out of political dissent. The last thing that I want to give the future generations, like my daughter and her children, are less rights than I was privileged to have. I fought for others to have such freedoms and am opposed to any actions which would restrict my child and her children from having the same freedoms I enjoy.

I remember being onboard USS Ranger, during Desert Storm, and thinking how our enemy was generally from a single ethnic, religious, and cultural background. I thought about how strange and possibly disconcerted they might have felt facing the USA, a powerful adversary composed of diverse races, cultural backgrounds and religions. I could not help but believe that this had an impact. Of course, during the Cold War, on the front lines in the submarine force, I knew that we faced a numerically formidable adversary, but they had tried to fuse a cross-cultural bond through totalitarianism and this would be their major weakness.

I felt then as I do now that our strength is in our diversity. How we achieved that strength was through the exercise of our First Amendment right to freedom of expression – no matter how repugnant or offensive the expression might be. Achieving that strength has not been easy – its been a struggle. In fact, the struggle personally touched me in the 1960’s when my father was called to assist as part of the National Guard to help quell riots in Boston. Ironically, not far from where the infamous “Boston Tea Party” occurred centuries earlier.

I was offended by the jeering and threats made on members of the military during the Vietnam War era, just as I am offended when I see a flag burned. There were days when the protests were so fierce that we were told not to wear our uniforms in public. As painful as that was, I still believe that those dissenting voices need to be heard no matter how offended I am. It is not just the majority or the popular voices that need to be heard. This country is unique and special because the minority, the unpopular, the dissenters and the downtrodden, also have a voice and are allowed to be heard in whatever way they choose to express themselves as they harmed no one else.

Free expression, especially the right to dissent with the policies of the government, is one important element, if not a cornerstone of our form of government that has greatly enhanced its stability, prosperity, and strength of our country.

Freedom is what makes the United States of America strong and great, and freedom, including the right to dissent, is what has kept our democracy going for more than 200 years. And it is freedom that will continue to keep it strong for my child and the children of all the guys like me who fought for freedom.

I hope and pray that the Constitution that I promised to support and defend is not undermined by cutting back on the freedom of expression that is so important to this great country.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak on this important matter. My family and I consider it a great honor to be here today, and have this opportunity to express ourselves freely.

Every month, you'll receive regular roundups of the most important civil rights and civil liberties developments. Remember: a well-informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.