I thought long and hard about whether I wanted to write a blog post that may be controversial in nature. I tried to convince myself that it would be easier just to bite my tongue, turn my cheek, look the other way. I reasoned that writing a post that was political in nature would be inappropriate or off topic for my “lifestyle” blog. But then I thought about why I started this blog, MilitaryDoc.com, a place dedicated to my journey to becoming a United States Air Force physician. I believe it would be an injustice to stay silent on the topic of kneeling during the national anthem.
For those new to my page, you may be surprised to learn I am South African by birth. I was born to a British mother and a German father who had both immigrated to South Africa as children themselves. It wasn’t until I was 6 years old that I moved to the United States of America. The first few years in this country were a blur of fresh faces, new food and complete culture shock. Despite being so young, my move to America was memorable and has made me the person I am today. In thinking about why I am so riled up by people blatantly disrespecting our flag and national anthem I have to think back and remember why this country and my American citizenship means so much to me.
I remember August 13th, 1998 – the day we left South Africa. After three flights and more than 25 hours of travel we landed in America, the land of opportunity. I didn’t realize at the time, how much my parents sacrificed for my brother and I to be able to grow up in America and the freedoms this afforded us. We no longer had to live behind brick walls with barbed wire and electric fencing. We no longer feared for our safety within our own home. We now lived in a nation with a justice system. We now lived in a nation where the police serve with integrity and would come when called, where ambulances are functional and would provide medical care for those in need. A country run by leaders kept in line by a system of checks and balances. A country where anything was possible!
I remember September 11th, 2001 – the day that changed our nation forever. As a 9 year old when the September 11th attacks occurred, I had no idea of the gravity of these events. It was many years later before I realized what a pivotal moment this would be in American history and still many years later before I used this as motivation to join the United States Air Force myself. What I did see as a 9 year old was the way our nation came together in the aftermath of those horrific terror attacks on our own soil. I remember the freeways being lined with American flags, and our nation standing together as one for every moment of silence and singing of the national anthem. A nation that rallied behind our first responders, police officers and firefighters who risked their lives that day to save as many citizens as possible. We rallied behind our troops who traveled to the Middle East to defend our freedoms.
I remember December 14th, 2010 – the day I became an American citizen. Despite living in this country for the majority of my childhood, it took me 12 years before I was granted the opportunity to call myself an American. For a large portion of my audience on this blog, becoming an American citizen was given freely at birth. For me this was not the case. Despite my first finals of college looming near, I was beyond excited to be sworn in as an American citizen. My ceremony was nothing fancy, in fact it took place over a countertop in a busy USCIS office. My dad stood by my side as I proudly repeated back the Naturalization Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America. I left that office clutching the small American flag I had been given as a memento to mark the special occasion. I hung this flag over my desk for years, as a reminder of how proud I was to call this country my official home. To me, becoming an American citizen was not only a great honor, it was a great privilege.
I remember June 17th, 2014 – The day I commissioned in the United States Air Force. This is the day that I swore to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, a promise I didn’t take lightly.
I remember June 29th, 2015 – the day I graduated from Commissioned Officer Training (COT). This was a happy day for many reasons. It meant being able to sleep in later than 04h30, being able to wear civilian clothes and take longer than 8 minutes to eat a meal. Looking back, COT was one of the best and most difficult things I have ever done. A few weeks into COT we were tasked with naming our graduating class after an American hero of our choice. After much debate, we decided to name our class the Rhyner class in honor of Master Sergeant Zachary Rhyner.
MSgt Rhyner was the recipient of the Air Force Cross (the 2nd highest award for valor in the U.S. Air Force) and two Purple Hearts for his actions during a battle in Shok Valley, Afghanistan in April of 2008. Rhyner was just 6 months out of training when he was deployed to Afghanistan where he served as a combat controller and worked with an Army Special Forces group. Soon after landing in Shok Valley, Rhyner and the 140 person team he was with were ambushed and Rhyner was shot twice in the chest and once in the leg. Despite being wounded, he was able to continue directing airstrikes from the group of F-15’s above. Rhyner is credited with keeping his entire team safe during a six and a half hour long battle and for coordinating more than 50 aerial attacks, including directing the strike of more than a dozen 500lb bombs and 4,570 cannon rounds.
Out of the millions of people who have served in the U.S. Air Force, only 192 Air Force Crosses have been awarded to date, and he is the only living recipient of the Air Force Cross in the Global War on Terror. Despite being a recipient of one of the highest awards in the U.S.A.F., Rhyner remains humble, and stated that “any other combat controller in the same position would’ve done just what [he] did”.
Rhyner went on to serve in six combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan as well as deploying to Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, being part of a team that is credited with delivering more than 69,000 pounds of humanitarian aid that was airdropped over the region. His last deployment came in 2013 when a bullet shattered his right femur, ultimately causing him to lose his leg and retire from the Air Force.
For these reasons, I remember why I am proud to be an American and for these reasons I stand.
I stand for Zach Rhyner and all the other unsung heroes of the United States Armed Forces.
I stand for the men and women who are currently deployed in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico doing humanitarian work after the series of hurricanes that have devastated this region.
I stand for the active duty attending physicians I work with who describe what it’s like to work as a deployed surgeon. These doctors have been faced with life threatening blunt force trauma and insufficient supplies. Tasked with saving the lives of the 18 year old enlisted service members who are often on the front lines, just months after graduating from high school. The same service members who put their lives on hold, left their families, and risked life and limb to protect the freedoms of those living in America.
These are the people I stand for.
I don’t endorse police brutality and I certainly don’t endorse racial discrimination. I didn’t write this article with the intention of diminishing the struggles people of color face in every day America. There are some significant issues we have as an American society. There has got to be a better way to fix these issues other than taking provocative measures in purposefully showing disrespect for our flag, our nation and our veterans. If we want to make a change in the way African-Americans are treated in society let’s make small consistent changes within the community. Get out, vote, volunteer, donate, educate. Kneeling for the national anthem does not change high school drop-out rates, teenage pregnancy rates or unemployment rates in inner city neighborhoods. It does not change the tense relations between police and the African American community. It doesn’t decrease crime rates in predominately black neighborhoods and it certainly hasn’t changed the opinions of or garnered support from those who did not believe African-Americans face certain prejudices in our society. By kneeling during the national anthem, these NFL players have started a conversation. So now, what are going to do with all this talk?
I respect the right of the American people to protest peacefully and to exercise their freedom of speech. With that being said, I will never respect those who choose to disrespect the flag and what it represents. There are many freedoms afforded to you by being an American citizen, many of which we are all guilty for taking for granted. We have the right to a vote in a democratic election. We have the right to contact our representatives and voice our opinions. We have the right to an education, to pursue whichever career we desire. We only have these rights because of those who sacrificed to protect our freedoms. Could it be that we are so privileged to be Americans that we forget how lucky we have it?
This is not about the color of your skin, the church you attend on Sundays, the neighborhood you grew up in, or who you voted for. This is about every man and woman of every race and religion who has stepped up and protected our nation and your ability to express yourselves freely. I love this country and I will always stand up for the flag.