I think since I was a small boy, seeing the American flag has always brought a lump to my throat. Standing in a classroom pledging allegiance, singing the national anthem at a high school football game, watching a movie of the Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima, or seeing the flag flying as I returned from a vacation abroad, these all made an impression on me.
But I don't think I ever truly understood what that flag stood for until I was sent to Vietnam to work as an advisory with South Vietnamese forces back in 1971. Halfway around the world, away from your family and friends, you realize as a young man how much you miss this country while hoping to survive each day to come home.
And it was really brought home at the end of each day as the flag was lowered. In the military, when the flag is retired for the evening, there is a plaintive and haunting bugle call that goes with the lower of the colors. Military custom dictates that all personnel stop what they are doing and come to attention and salute the flag as it is lowered, as a sign of respect.
This was a part of our daily routine in Vietnam, and I still remember watching the red, white and blue flag come the pole and thinking how it symbolized everything each of us there in Vietnam wanted-to come home to all that was good and decent and wonderful about this country. That flag was a lifeline to all of us, a reminder of a different life full of our hopes and dreams. It was something that allowed us to connect with our country far, far away as we hoped and prayed to be able to return our loved ones when our tour was up.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit the American cemetery above Omaha Beach in France where nearly 10,000 young Americans lie forever on land they helped liberate from Nazi oppression. It was Memorial Day weekend back here in America, and as the sun slowly set the same haunting bugle call I heard so many times in Vietnam began to play. Both my friend and I came to attention as the flag was respectfully retired by an honor guard. Watching that flag come down and saluting it and heroes that lay in that cemetery was a wonderful and moving experience.
And it reaffirmed what I had learned so long ago in Vietnam-that while our country is not perfect it still is far ahead of whatever is in second place.