Explaining patriotism to the grandkids

By Steve Nelson

I’ve always been somewhat cynical about my own military service. I’m also suspicious of “Thank you for your service,” “Support the troops!” and most other forms of uncritical patriotism or nationalism. But Veterans Day last year shifted my view.

November 11, 2019, marked the 50th Veterans Day since my discharge from the Army in 1969. I served for three years and was a first lieutenant at the time of my discharge. For 49 years I paid scant attention, as neither my veteran status nor patriotic holidays held deep meaning to me. Or so I thought.

That particular Monday dawned brilliant in Colorado. The grandchildren had spent the night with us, and when 8-year-old Maddie came down to the kitchen I offered to make pancakes. She suggested a flag pancake in honor of Veterans Day, using frosting for stripes and a Christmas cookie cutter to make stars.

There was more than a flag pancake in store for me on this Veterans Day.

Maddie’s school planned an afternoon assembly to honor the school’s parent and grandparent veterans. She invited me, and it seemed quite important to her. Given that I would walk on broken glass for my grandchildren, gritting my teeth to be part of a patriotic ceremony was within my capacity, though I did not look forward to it.

When I arrived, I joined a line of about 35 other veterans—mostly fathers, no women—who were a mix of Army, Air Force and Marines. The kids arrived holding small flags, glancing sidelong at us with great curiosity. I’m not sure the younger kids knew exactly what “veteran” means. Maddie grinned at me as she passed.

We vets were seated in a row in front of 700 kids and their teachers as the uber-enthusiastic principal (also a Marine veteran) asked us to rise, place hands on hearts and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. I don’t love the Pledge of Allegiance. But I’m mature enough to save my conspicuous skepticism for other occasions, so I placed my hand over my heart.

We passed a microphone from vet to vet, each of us introducing ourselves, the nature and time of our service, and a few words of wisdom. I was one of only two from the Vietnam War. I felt briefly fossilized and wanted to yell out, “I can still run and stuff!” The others talked about honor and service. Many implored the kids to consider a life of service to others, whatever form it might take. One exhorted them to study hard, lest they end up in the Navy. That brought chuckles from the row of vets and crickets from the kids. Just before my turn, I caught Maddie’s eye and got tears in my own. This was indeed important to her.

I introduced myself as Maddie’s grandfather and said a few things about being in the Army and how you should never be afraid to ask “why” when ordered to use force or do something that seems wrong. I tried to sprinkle a few grains of “question authority” into an atmosphere of “respect your elders.” The assembly concluded with a set of songs with “thanks for your service” lyrics.

Afterward, I learned that Maddie was to interview me in front of the class. She was delightfully composed as we worked through a list of 20 or 30 questions that were prepared in advance. I honored my late father-in-law, sharing how he was wounded and captured during the disastrous Dieppe Raid in World War II. Maddie was transfixed as I told his story.

The kids were fully engaged. My brief stories of military training left them wide-eyed with amazement, especially the parts about getting all my hair shaved off and cleaning toilets with a toothbrush. After the prepared questions, they were invited to ask their own. Hands shot up. Boys asked what guns I got to fire and if I got to drive tanks. They liked my answers: “many” and “yes.”

I’m generally troubled by flag-waving patriotism, but I know my cynicism is due to the bad wars instigated by politics, not the good service provided by military women and men.

On that one Veterans Day, I was glad to be among the other veterans who served or are serving the ideals of liberty and justice. For a moment, I allowed myself to reflect on the unfinished nobility of the American experiment rather than on the many ways we fail.

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