As an “Army brat” growing up in a military home, raised by military minds, I was receptive to all of the patriotic messages surrounding me. At a very early age, I recall memorizing a poem that always created a tremendous sense of pride, as well as a healthy dose of goosebumps. A snippet of the poem is imprinted in my memory:
“… weary hearts are beating high!
Hats off! Our flag is passing by!”
There was no question. I was the embodiment of a patriot, albeit a very young one. I was proud to be an American and knew in my young heart that the families in the military were very special and especially patriotic. Then I grew up.
I went to Ohio State in the 1960s and saw firsthand the anti-war groups that frequented my college campus and dared to question my country’s values and actions in Vietnam. Their messages alarmed me. I was putting all of my energy into my nursing education, and had no inclination to question my government or the war. I felt hostility toward these outliers and had no desire to hear any of their ideas. My naïve, uninformed self believed that anyone opposing my government should just leave the country.
After graduation, I joined the Army Nurse Corps. I went to Vietnam, working in an emergency room, tending to the casualties of the war. Within the first week I began to question my youthful paradigms. I looked into the eyes of a dying, nineteen-year-old American and could not justify his death. I took care of a VietCong soldier, tending to his wounds, knowing he would survive those wounds but ultimately lose his life to his captors. I cried as I plucked out pieces of small metal fragments from his body.
I gradually began to understand that war is patriotism on opposing sides. The uniforms differentiate the dogma but don’t separate the grief. The uniforms define the combatants, but their losses are universal. The young American and VietCong were patriots. Each loved, each defended, and each died for his country.
This is when I came to believe that a patriotic person can question and disagree with the country she loves.
I embrace my sense of belonging to this country, my love of this country, and the democratic values of this country. I staunchly endorse the patriotic right to question my country’s values and its actions. As an American, I can question. As an American, I have the right to oppose any of my government’s actions.
I believe it is my responsibility as a patriotic person to be informed and to never stop questioning.
And, yes, I still get goosebumps when watching our flag pass by.