This I Believe

John - Silver Spring, Maryland
Entered on October 30, 2006

Flying the Flag in the Desert of Death

By John Boit

I just turned 36 years old and frankly, the older you get the less you care about birthday gifts. Until this last birthday.

That was when I opened up a package sent from my brother, a Navy officer currently serving in southern Afghanistan. Inside the package was an American flag, the dust of Afghanistan still embedded in its fabric.

“I flew this flag on your birthday,” my brother wrote in a note. “This was the official US flag for the camp that day.”

My brother’s camp is in Afghanistan’s province of Helmand, a dangerous, drug-ridden, desolate place covered in a talcum-powder dust that invades every piece of military machinery, office equipment and human pore. Afghan locals give it an apt name: “The Desert of Death.”

I myself had spent six months in Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul last year as a media consultant on a US government contract. I did it in part because, as a civilian, I wanted to do something for my country. But holding that flag as I sat in the relative green lush of my backyard in suburban Maryland, I was overcome with emotion. Speechless, I handed the letter to my wife, who also cried.

We hear a lot in America about how we need to support our troops. We put yellow ribbons on our cars. We ship care packages to soldiers. We send them emails with news and photos from home.

But support can go both ways. It can be “pushed” from this side of the planet by those left at home and who tell our soldiers they are not forgotten. But it can also be “pulled” by those serving if only they give us a glimpse of their lives.

For me, that folded, dust-covered flag conjured up an instant mental picture of the Stars and Stripes flying proudly over a desert moonscape 10,000 miles away. I can see my brother lowering it at dusk, the sun straining blood-red through the haze of another day in one of the most inhospitable places on the planet. I’ll never know exactly what my brother is going through, but for a second, I could picture him there. And, as he later told me, “I could see that flag flying from around the base that day, and I would look up at it and say hello to you, brother.”

I hope the leaders of our armed forces are making sure to send a message down the chain of command. Their message should be simple: From those serving in outposts that most Americans will never see, let’s send them something that reminds people back home that we are born of a free country, that we are dedicated professionals and that we are making enormous personal sacrifices. Let’s fly the flag for them.

So, if you are serving in the armed forces overseas, fly a flag for someone you care about and send it back home, dust and all. Because, brother, besides your safe return, it’s the best gift you could ever give.