In Their Own Words: Compendium of Veterans' Quotes Against the Flag Desecration Amendment

Document Date: March 4, 2004

I fear the unintended consequences of these 17 words and the laws that may be enacted later will be far worse than the consequences of us witnessing the occasional and shocking and disgusting desecration of this great symbol of liberty and freedom.

Real patriotism cannot be coerced. It must be a voluntary, unselfish, brave act to sacrifice for others. And when Americans feel coercion especially from their government they tend to rebel. So none of us should be surprised Mr. Chairman if one unintended consequence of the laws that prohibit unpopular activity such as this is an actual increase in the incidents of flag desecration.

U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey (D-NE)
Veteran of the elite Navy SEAL Team, the Navy’s version of the Green Berets, and is currently the only member of Congress to have earned the Congressional Medal of Honor, America’s highest military honor.
Excerpted from testimony given before the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 28, 1999

The Constitution is a document that provides each citizen with broad rights. The right to assemble peacefully; the right to speak and publish freely; the freedom to worship without interference; freedom from unlawful search and seizure; freedom from slavery and involuntary servitude; the right to vote. It is these freedoms that define what it means to be an American.

In its more than 200 years, the Constitution has been amended only 27 times — one time was acknowledged a mistake, and repealed. The amendments have reaffirmed and expanded individual freedoms. This proposed Amendment would not expand the list of freedoms. This Amendment for the first time would limit individual freedom.

U.S. Senator John H. Chaffee (R-RI)
Veteran of the United States Marine Corps who served in the original invasion forces at Guadalcanal and commanded a rifle company in Korea.
Excerpted from testimony given before the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 28, 1999

As a Vietnam veteran who lives daily with the consequences of my service to my country, and as the son of a WWII combat veteran, and the grandson of a WWI combat veteran, I can attest to the fact that not all veterans indeed perhaps most veterans do not wish to exchange fought-for freedoms for protecting a tangible symbol of these freedoms. I oppose this amendment because it does not support the freedom of expression and the right to dissent.

Now, 31 years, 1 week and one day following the loss of my legs in combat, I am again called upon to defend the freedoms which my sacrifices in combat were said to preserve. It’s been a long 31+ years. I have faced the vexing challenge of reconciling myself with the reality of my military history and the lessons I have learned from it and the popular portrayal of veterans as one dimensional patriots, whose patriotism MUST take the form of intolerance, narrow-mindedness, euphemisms, and reductionism-where death in combat is referred to as “making the ultimate sacrifice” and the motivation for service and the definition of true patriotism is reduced to dedication to a piece of cloth.

The strength of our nation is found in its diversity. This strength was achieved 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-it’s been a struggle, a struggle lived by some very important men in my life and me.

I am offended when I see the flag burned or treated disrespectfully. As offensive and painful as this is, I still believe that those dissenting voices 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 that does not harm others. The freedom of expression, even when it hurts, is the truest test of our dedication to the belief that we have that right.

Free expression, especially the right to dissent with the policies of the government, is one important element, if not the 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 children and the children of all the people like my father, late father in law, grandfather, brother, me, and others like us who served honorably and proudly for freedom.

The pride and honor we feel is not 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-and especially those in my family. 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.

I love this country, its people and what it stands for. The last thing I want to give the future generations are fewer rights than I was privileged to have. My family and I served and fought for others to have such freedoms and I am opposed to any actions which would restrict my children and their children from having the same freedoms I enjoy.

Gary May, who lost both legs to a landmine explosion while serving in Vietnam
Evansville, Indiana
Excerpted from testimony given before the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 20, 1999

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.

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.

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.

Joseph E. Rogers, veteran of Desert Storm/Shield
Richarson, Texas
Excerpted from testimony given before the House Judiciary Committee on March 23, 1999

I can safely speak for my four brothers Donald, William, Lanceford, Paul and myself — all veterans of the second World War — when I say one of the basic freedoms for which we served is that of free speech. Do not let anyone use the flag under which we served as an instrument to abridge our constitutional rights.

Richard Soulsby
Vista, California

When I volunteered for service, I took an oath to defend and preserve the Constitution of the United States. I still feel bound by that oath.

During basic training, the Army made sure that all soldiers were taught military courtesy, including proper ways to show respect for the flag. The word “courtesy” was used because we took no oath of loyalty to the flag, and we certainly were not required to to regard the flag as a sacred object in and of itself. The Flag Code, saluting the flag, and showing proper respect to the flag were ways of demonstrating our respect for the ideas that the flag symbolizes.

My understanding of what our nation and Constitution stand for gives me strong faith in the principles embodied in the Bill of Rights. That includes the right of people with whom I disagree to demonstrate openly, to protest, to struggle peaceably for what they believe to be right. My faith in the Bill of Rights is so strong that I must support the right of others to protest in any way that does not deprive others of their rights. If I were to fail to support te right to protest, I would also fail in my duty to support the Constitution. My religious faith includes the commandment “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” The U.S. flag is not a sacred object. No act of law, and no change in the Constitution, can make it so: God, and God alone, is sacred. Any law, any constitutional amendment that would call a flag so sacred that to harm it would be sacrilege would be an insult to my deepest religious beliefs. It would be a form of forcing me to worship a strange god, and thus violate what I take to be God’s Commandments.

Michael Salovesh, veteran of the Korean war
De Kalb, Illinois

I am a 47 year old, Noncommissioned Officer with 25 years of service between Active Service and Reserve Component Service. I never smoked a day in my life, yet I got cancer of the tongue, neck and throat from my constant exposure to toxic munitions and explosives.

In all of my years of service, I never once disrespected the American flag, permitted anyone to disrespect, or allowed the desecration of the American flag anywhere that I served. I was often the Noncommissioned Officer-in-Charge of the flag detail, to raise and lower the flag on installations around the world, large and small.

It always gave me great joy to see our flag raised by my service men and women on holidays. This was especially true on the Fourth of July, Independence Day, when we always raised an enormous Garrison flag that was, to me, a smiling ray of sunshine and a thing of beauty that represented our ideals of freedom, basic human independence and equality for all.

I hated to see other repressive dissidents burn our flag during my years of service in places such as Iran, when the American diplomats were taken hostage during the Carter Administration and in Iraq during Desert Storm. It really hurt my heart.

As much as I despise the act, to have Congress pass a constitutional amendment to prevent desecration of the flag is an insult to the American freedom, independence, righteousness, free expression of our freedoms and glory that it flies for and represents. It is the ideals that the flag represents that should be guarded forever, including the freedom to fly it or not to fly it, according to the Constitution and Bill of Rights. To pas this amendment against flag desecration would be the first step to the United States to becoming a repressive government diminishing the freedoms of speech and other basic rights of the American people.

Robert E. Flock
Staff Sergeant, United States Army (retired)

I am a Vietnam Veteran and retiree from the USAF and have recently been diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, and incurable bone marrow cancer. Chances are very good that my disease was triggered while serving in Southeast Asia.

As a veteran I view and treat our flag with the greatest respect and as a symbol of the sacrifices that so many veterans have made in the defense of our country in so many wars and conflicts. As such, it disturbs me to se this symbols desecrated in ANY manner (even wearing it on clothing).

In spite of my own beliefs and feelings about the subject, I do not wish to force them upon others, and I deeply resent our elected leaders forcing it upon the nation. I would be curious to see how many of those said leaders ever served their country in the military.

It is my belief that our leaders have lost complete contact with the people and are trying their best to erode what freedoms we have left.

Kenneth E. Irvine, MSgt, USAF, retired after 25 years and eight months of service
Cincinnati, Ohio

As much as I am personally opposed to acts of flag desecration, I am WHOLLY OPPOSED to Congress passing any laws abridging any rights of the citizens of the United States! A law that takes away the rights of the people to express themselves would be a far worse crime against this country than the loss of a flag due to desecration.

I volunteered to serve my country and served it well during that time. I have spent many months living on a submarine, underwater and overseas, under conditions deemed ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ for convicts, in order to try to protect the rights of all the citizens of this country. To have a law passed that effectively disables the First Amendment would be a slap in the face to me and to everyone else who has donated part or all of their life to preserving these freedoms.

John Magruder, Machinist Mate First Class with Honors(retired) and eight year veteran of the Naval Nuclear Power Program
Aiken, South Carolina

I am a veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces, a person who spent two years training to be an officer at the united States Naval Academy. I have a hard time believing that there is anyone in this fine country as patriotic as I am. I grew up reading books about military and naval heroes, spent years trying to get into the Naval academy, and still continue to feel as though my true goal in life is to be laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.

However strongly I feel about my nation’s flag, I cannot bear the desecration of our Constitution that such an amendment would cause. I am strongly against the desecration of any object of national importance, but I also cannot mock the First Amendment by taking away our nation’s constitutional right to do so. That flag has such meaning, but the meaning behind the flag is the greatness of our country. Passing a constitutional amendment banning flag desecration would lead this nation down a slippery slope until all freedoms are regulated and amended.

Annemarie Spadafore
Elyria, Ohio

As a Veteran of the Armed Forces, I have represented our flag and country both abroad and at home. I feel that this is an attack on our constitutional right to free speech. We are entering a dangerous area when we start changing our constitution on emotions. The sheer fact that people get very upset when they see a flag being burned is testament to the power of free speech, and political opposition. This country should try to protect people’s right of free speech instead of trying to limit it more and more each day.

Please don’t let your country become one that heads towards a police state by slowly tearing at the very rights that set us apart and atop the rest of the world.

Mr. Nathan S. Osborn
Raleigh, North Carolina

If the constitutional amendment against flag-burning passes, I will no longer use our flag as a symbol of our freedom. I will show my respect in other ways because my flag will have lost its meaning for me. And I will turn in my flag, with all respect due to it (and to him), to Sen. Orrin Hatch. He is one man I sincerely respect and admire and honor for all he has done for the American people. However, I cannot see that the coercion of loyalty is more important than the freedom to choose and the freedom to voice our protest. Finally, I am able to choose. And I protest.

Doug Brown, veteran of the Vietnam war
Salt Lake City, Utah
(Excerpted from an op-ed originally published in the Salt Lake Tribune on November 21, 1997)

I share the feelings that gave birth to the (flag) amendment; seeing our flag desecrated makes me angry. But our angry reaction is the point: it illustrates the power of flag desecration as symbolic speech. It is a most powerful way for someone to tell us thy believe we are doing something wrong, that we are not living up to our ideals.

I spent 30 years on active duty in the U.S. Army and believe strongly in our country and the principles on which it was founded. Preeminent among these are the freedoms of speech and expression. The United States has never done something that would drive me to desecrate a flag to express my opposition, but I believe we must preserve a citizen’s right to express his or her political views in this way.

Before approving the amendment, Congress should reflect that many political and social changes, the justice and morality of which we take for granted, were initiated by people whose sense of outrage was not initially shared by most of their fellow citizens. Our national ideals were articulated in the Declaration and the Constitution, but they were only achieved through rough and tumble political conflict. It is possible that some will use this form of protest for trivial purposes, but there is no requirement that free men and women exercise their freedoms only in ways the majority would approve.

If this amendment is passed and ratified, the government and the power of a majority will deprive dissident voices of a powerful means of speech and expression, but we will all be less free. We can learn to tolerate the anger and discomfort that flag desecration provokes and take time to reflect that it is a small price to pay to safeguard the freedoms of speech and expression that so few people enjoy in our measure.

Mike Pheneger, Colonel – United States Army (Retired)
Originally published in the Tampa Tribune on July 2, 1998

As a veteran of Beirut, Panama & Desert Storm, I feel very strongly about our flag and what it stands for. I am permanently disabled as a direct result of my 15 years of service to our country. I feel that our flag “Old Glory” stands for FREEDOM, JUSTICE & LIBERTY. It also symbolizes the BLOOD SPILLED by American service men and women who gave so much to protect it and what it stands for.

Though many of my colleagues and friends died, and were injured or wounded in action, they really were not wounded for it, the flag, but rather for it, Liberty and what the flag stands for. In reality it is really just a symbol of that sacrifice and more importantly, our American ideals. Therefore, I am writing in opposition to the proposed constitutional amendment to outlaw desecration of the flag. This legislation, SJ Res. 40, is an unnecessary intrusion of our civil liberties.

During my years as a Paratrooper & Special Forces “Green Beret” I had the opportunity, to travel to, and be involved with several countries with evil, oppressive governments. Governments, where the peoples civil rights were often abridged, or did not exist at all. I swore then that I would never live in a country, where the symbol of the government, became more important than the peoples rights to live free under that government. I feel that the right to protest & political expression, no matter how stupid or offensive it may be to the majority, must be allowed, as long as it is peaceful.

This flag amendment will place a higher value on an inanimate object, a symbol, than the rights of the people living under it. The Constitution and especially the Bill of Rights, gave protection to “We The People.” Flags, no matter how honored, do not have rights, people do, please protect them.

Any country that places an inanimate object, over its people has no real liberty. If this amendment passes, I feel flag burning will become a common form of protest against this ill-conceived policy.

As a true conservative, I ask you, when did it become conservative policy to recommend several changes to the Constitution? My brand of Conservatism does not include this doctrine. You need to help enforce the existing laws. Strengthen them as necessary, get rid of the stupid ones, and stop making new ones. I feel you have better things to do with your time & our tax dollars, than changing the constitution, for something that rarely occurs and is typically done by immature idiots. Please do not support this bill. Thank you.

MSGT (R ) Marvin Virgil Stenhammar (E-8)
U.S. Special Operations Command (Retired)
Testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary
July 8, 1998

I am a veteran, wounded in combat in World War II. The veterans of the Revolutionary War fought to overthrow tyranny and establish freedom. They did not fight to protect a piece of cloth which merely symbolizes our free nation. The founding fathers added to our Constitution a Bill of Rights, which ensures the preservation of our hard-won freedoms. The flag desecration amendment would only dishonor our ancestors’ struggle for freedom of speech by abridging that freedom.

John Rutherford
Excerpted from Letter to the Editor published in the San Francisco Chronicle on July 1, 1998
San Francisco, California

As a combat veteran of the United States Army in 1968, I know it is wrong to burn the American flag. As an American in 1998, I know it is infinitely more wrong for our government to suppress free expression.

The only possible purpose for physical desecration of the U.S. flag is protest. Our citizens must be free to protest and our government must be strong enough and freedom-minded enough to allow such protest. The reason I felt obligated to serve in the military was my belief in freedom in this county, including the freedom to protest by burning the American flag. A truly free country has nothing to fear from free speech, including the physical desecration of a symbol of freedom.

While I have not researched the laws of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia, I am confident that it was illegal to burn the swastika and the communist flag in those countries. Both of those prohibitions were wrong, and it is just as wrong to limit free speech here.

If you make it illegal to express free speech by burning the flag, you might as well make it illegal to express free speech by flying the flag. Is there really any difference between these rights?

Mike Smith
LaGrange, Georgia

As a combat veteran who experienced much of the ‘hell’ that is war, I am despondent and angry that the Senate is seriously considering the desecration of our Constitution and its Bill of Rights.

Of course our flag represents to me and most vets, a revered symbol. The ‘flag-burning’ amendment, however, is a cowardly surrender to popular, unthinking, sanctimonious and counterfeit patriotism.

No government, not the German Nazis, the Japanese Imperialists, the Russian Stalinists, the Italian Fascists, or the Cuban Communists, have or had any objection to safe, patriotic speech. Safe speech needs no guarantees of freedom, no Constitutional protection.

The more unpopular, the more repugnant and revolting the speech, the more needed is the First Amendment protection. Virtually all of the Founding Fathers faced prison or worse because the government of the time found their speech to be offensive. They

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