Why We Stand for the Flag

Sgt First Class Leroy A. Petty

Pictured here is Sergeant First Class Leroy A. Petty who received the Medal of Honor for his heroism during the Afghanistan War.  Few of us will be called upon to make the sacrifices that our military makes to keep our nation safe.  Most of us have known freedom every day of our lives: free to be born, to live, to grow and thrive, to be educated, to worship, to work, to have families, to move around as we choose, to retire and enjoy the golden years.

My family shares an understanding of the sacrifices of soldiers like Sergeant Petty.  Patriotism, respect for the American flag, and respect and honor for those who have gone before us.  These are keys to building character in children, and characteristics that are fading. 

There is an enormous cost to our precious gift of freedom that we often take for granted.  According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, over 41 million Americans have served in our Armed Forces over the course of the nation’s history.  That’s FORTY-ONE MILLION people in just two hundred forty-six years.  Freedom is NOT FREE!  It never has been and never will be! 

At a recent high school football, my family was sitting on the visitors’ side of the stadium at the first of our away games.  We were excited to watch our grandson, who is a senior and one of his team’s kickers, open the game with the first kickoff.

After the usual opening and introductions, I was surprised with what happened next.  Although the home team’s side was full of spectators and the marching band was present, the national anthem was presented ‘canned’ through the speaker system with a small video of our flag on their electronic scoreboard.  I also saw a group of their JROTC students down in the end zone rooting for their team, doing push-ups when they scored a touchdown.  But no Color Guard!

When the anthem began playing, my eyes were searching for the flag and finally discovered the small video screen on the scoreboard.  I observed people below us continuing to sit and play on their phones, others who were standing but not with hand over heart, and many just milling around.  Seeing this lack of respect, I was appalled at what I was witnessing at a high school football game. 

The home side of the stadium was packed, but it was too far away to see their response to the anthem.  I certainly hope there was more respect than what I saw on our side.  I am shocked and embarrassed by the influence of professional athletes and movie stars who have set such an unforgivable example to young and old alike.

My family is one of America’s Gold Star families, and believe me, you never want to be one!  It is painful…heartbreaking…and the pain never goes away.  A Gold Star family is defined as the immediate relatives of a member of our military who has died in the line of duty. The mission of this organization is intended to honor the service member’s ultimate sacrifice while acknowledging their family’s loss, grief, and continued healing.  

My brother, Capt. Hilliard A. Wilbanks, died in Vietnam on February 24, 1967, while fighting to keep America safe.  It was for you and for me.  On January 24, 1968, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic action which resulted in many lives saved but at the sacrifice of his own.  His story can be found at www.HilliardAWilbanksFoundation.org.

On special days I wear my Gold Star to honor him and his sacrifice for all of us. Just a couple of years ago, I found that I am eligible to wear one.  I knew there was Gold Star Wives and Gold Star Mothers but did not know immediate family members were included.  I also wear my American flag pin.  My brother loved this country and always said he would go anywhere needed to protect our freedom, to keep the enemy from ever reaching American soil.

Hilliard did not choose to become a hero; he chose to do what he could to protect the lives of those who were in imminent danger.  He saw the enemy poised to ambush the approaching friendly forces.  He risked his life going beyond the call of duty and even disregarded his superior officer calling him to ‘stand down’.  Someone had to help, he could not just fly away to safety. 

He was an ordinary captain in the United States Air Force but was called to do extraordinary things to help his comrades in peril.  Sometimes I ask “WHY?”  Why did he decide in that moment to go the extra mile?  Why didn’t he remember he had a family to come home to? 

I think he did remember, but he also remembered his oath taken as an officer.  It was his job.

“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 upon which I am about to enter, so help me God.”

My brother was almost fifteen years older than me, but I know he did not hesitate to say those words and to add “so help me God.”  He loved our family; he loved the Air Force; and he loved flying. 

I am proud to be an American and I thank the 41 million Americans who have defended this nation.  My family is proud to fly the American flag in honor of our country and the men who gave us the ability to keep it high and lifted up.  Freedom will never be free.  It comes with a high cost. 

Unfortunately, to preserve our freedom, lives will be lost.  There will always be an enemy, foreign and domestic, who hates America for the beliefs she was founded upon.  Whether it is our military or our police force always standing to defend, we must never forget the cost of freedom and the price so many have paid. 

Patricia Wilbanks Dewitt