What do veterans think about kneeling during the anthem? Views are diverse.
Jake Lowary, USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee Published 6:27 p.m. CT Sept. 28, 2017 | Updated 6:54 p.m. CT Sept. 28, 2017
President Trump said NFL players should be fired for kneeling during the national anthem. USA TODAY Sports
FILE – Int his Monday, Sept. 12, 2016, file photo, San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid (35) and quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams in Santa Clara, Calif. Reid has resumed his kneeling protest for human rights during the national anthem, after joining then-teammate Kaepernick’s polarizing demonstration last season. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)
(Photo: The Associated Press)
A week into the latest polarizing political debate in America — this time whether athletes should take a knee during the national anthem — veterans across Tennessee are as diverse in their opinions as the rest of the nation.
President Donald Trump set off the debate during a fiery speech in Alabama last week in which he said NFL owners should fire players who kneel during the anthem.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b—h off the field right now,’ ” Trump said. “Out. He’s fired. He’s fired!”
Trump’s speech and subsequent series of tweets, and a retweet of a photo of former NFL player and Army Ranger Pat Tillman, set off a flurry of similar posts on social media and beyond, many of which suggested that those who kneel during the anthem don’t respect veterans.
On Sunday, NFL players across the league took part in the protests against racial injustice by taking a knee, locking arms or staying inside the locker rooms.
Tillman’s widow, Marie, told CNN that her husband would have supported NFL players who chose to kneel.
► More: Why do NFL players protest during national anthem? A timeline: From Kaepernick to Trump.
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“The very action of self expression and the freedom to speak from one’s heart — no matter those views — is what Pat and so many other Americans have given their lives for. Even if they didn’t always agree with those views,” she told CNN.
Many veterans hold that same opinion, but others do not. It’s often complicated.
“Personally, I’m not offended by it,” said Master Sgt. Pete Mayes, who is soon retiring after a 20-year career in the Army that’s taken him from Washington, D.C., to Fort Campbell to Hawaii and Afghanistan.
“What I do believe is that our personal beliefs do not and should not supersede our professional duty and obligation to defend the Constitution of the United States,” Mayes added.
During a White House press conference with Spain’s prime minister, President Trump took time to address the backlash over calling protesting NFL players “SOBs.” USA TODAY
Shea Jones, 38, a twice-deployed Marine from Nashville who now lives in Murfreesboro, said he is “all for the right to protest.”
But Jones said what frustrates him is that protests like the ones taking place in the NFL have become veterans’ issues when they never were veteran specific to begin with.
The NFL protests began last year when quarterback Colin Kaepernick began taking a knee during the national anthem to push for racial equality and draw attention to police brutality around the country. Kneeling was advised by a veteran teammate of Kaepernick’s.
“I wish they would take each issue subjectively,” Jones said, whether it be a minimum wage debate or something else.
“Often (veterans) are used as a counter because no one wants to go against veterans issues,” Jones said.
Kevin Ferrell, 53, a five-year Army veteran from Memphis, said he supports Kaepernick’s initial cause, but since then “it’s been totally blown out of proportion.”
“As a soldier, that’s not what I fought for and agreed to die for — for someone’s rights to be dictated,” Ferrell said.
But other veterans say the display during the anthem might send the wrong message.
Jarrin Jackson, a former Army officer and Ranger who deployed with the 101st Airborne Division and now lives in Oklahoma, said, “It doesn’t bother (me) how people use their freedom.”
But, he said, “People who kneel during the anthem (whether they know it or not) push an anti-America message.”
And for him, “that ain’t cool.”
“What gets me is that people don’t use their freedom responsibly. Kneeling during the anthem does attack a powerful symbol (the flag) and that’ll predictably upset lots of people,” he said.
“I want peace, which means people shouldn’t be stupid. They can be stupid, but they shouldn’t be.”
The debate reached a fever pitch on Monday after Pittsburgh Steelers lineman Alejandro Villanueva, also a former Ranger, appeared alone for the anthem in Chicago. The rest of his team stayed inside during the anthem.
But Villanueva, too, harbors no grudge.
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“I don’t think veterans at the end of the day take any offense,” he said. “They actually signed up and fought so that somebody could take a knee and protest peacefully whatever it is that their hearts desire.”
National American Legion Commander Denise Rohan said the anthem shouldn’t be used as a moment to protest anything.
“Having a right to do something does not make it the right thing to do,” she said. “There are many ways to protest, but the national anthem should be our moment to stand together as one United States of America.”
Jake Lowary covers veterans and military affairs for the USA TODAY NETWORK. Reach him at 931-237-1583
Photo credits: The Associated Press