Symbols of America

By TSgt. Steve Flatt
426th IS
Ramstein AB, Germany

Somebody once asked me why was I so “ate up,” so I told him.

I began by asking, “What is the one thing that could be taken from you that would change your life completely?

Maybe it’s your kids, your car, your home or your money?”

You see he and all of you have been blessed with the greatest gift the world can give, and I promise losing it would change your lives. Yet not he, and I bet not one of you, thought of it when I asked the question … the answer: FREEDOM.

Let me give you the view of a man who had to earn the right to be called an American and what the things that symbolize America mean to me, such as our military uniform, our national flag, and the Statue of Liberty.

Let me show you why I think it is important we not take our freedom for granted. The greatest dream most of the world shares is to be called an American, but as Americans we sometimes forget what having our freedom really means.

As we grew as a country, the definition of freedom changed. During the War of Independence, it meant freedom from the Crown, during the Civil War, it meant freedom from slavery, and today it means something different to each of us. Yet sadly, we only cherish it when it seems threatened.

There are several symbols that represent the American way of life to the world. One of these symbols is right under our noses yet very often it is overlooked. To many, our uniform is probably the most common and evident symbol of America. As Americans, we like to think we all have pride, unless that is, we have to do that little bit extra to achieve it.

For instance, when ironing a uniform, it’s those extra few minutes it takes to press our clothes that influence how the outside world sees us. You have been trained to follow the directions as outlined in AFI 36-2903, Dress and Personal Appearance, but sadly, the AFI will not tell you how to show pride in your uniform.

It’s not written, it’s just a feeling. Showing real American pride is something few Americans will ever get a chance to truly do, especially in a foreign land. Many places in the world we now deploy to look to the American soldier as their last chance, especially in a foreign land.

We have freed countries from oppression and provided them with hope. They see our uniform as a symbol of that hope.

Another symbol is the flag of our country. Have you ever carried it in a parade or experienced a chill down your spine as the National Anthem played? There is nothing like it.

Honoring our flag is just one way we show respect to our country and what it represents.

As members of the military, we use Air Force Manual 36-2203, Drills and Ceremonies, to teach us the correct procedures for paying respect to the flag. It outlines the procedures for raising, lowering and carrying the flag to name a few. Yet sometimes I think we forget what it really represents.

According to the web site for Francis Scott Key, author of “The Star Spangled Banner,” Key tells how he felt while imprisoned on the British flagship, Tonnant, outside Ft. McHenry, as he listened to the battle. By the sound of things he felt America was losing, yet his belief the war was not going well was dispelled when he saw the flag flying high, letting him know America was still free. To me, this is what our flag means. We shouldn’t salute at retreat or reveille because it’s “our job,” but because it’s our heritage.

The Medal of Honor web site quotes Sir Winston Churchill as saying, “A people that have forgotten their heritage, are a people who have lost faith in themselves.”

America has come a long way in its young lifetime, yet in today’s world we have become more wrapped up in ourselves, taking our freedom for granted. Many people throughout the world envision America as the place where their dreams can come true. To many, America is the only place that symbolizes happiness.

I think the first time I understood what America could mean to a person was when at the age of 12, my family and I flew from England to New York City. We stayed in Manhattan for three days, during which time we visited the Statue of Liberty.

You know, I didn’t realize the feeling of security and awe this lady inspires until now. I remember seeing my new stepfather, a veteran of the Vietnam War twice decorated with the Purple Heart, looking at her and crying. When I asked why, he told me he was ashamed. He went on to say that after arriving home from Vietnam, he was beaten up by people from his hometown. The only way he could stop the attack was by telling those people he hated fighting for his country, how he took off his uniform and allowed them to burn it. It amazed me that this very quiet man, who never showed his feelings and hardly ever lost his temper, was brought to tears by a 306-foot, 250-ton stature.

But it’s not just a statue, is it? It’s a symbol of hope for the millions of us that call ourselves Americans, and for those that wish to be Americans.

My father once said to me, if I choose to become an American, never be ashamed of what I felt and to value whatever I achieved. I was fortunate enough, at the age of 19, to receive my American citizenship. I recall the judge shaking my hand and saying, “Welcome to America.”

I think my most prized possession, my symbol of America, is that Certificate of Naturalization.

No matter what you regard as your symbol of the American way of life, it is important to remember what it truly means.

There are many symbols that represent the American way of life, these are just a few. Some symbols are within our means of manipulation, such as the way we choose to wear our military uniform. Others, such as the flag, are known throughout the world as symbols of the principles held and fought for by the United States. We honor our flag whenever we display, retire or hold it. No other country in the world demands more respect for its flag, because of what it represents.

The Statue of Liberty, the most common symbol to non-Americans, has given many immigrants the hope to achieve the American dream. Our freedom is one thing we should cherish and never take for granted. Our pride is the greatest weapon we have as Americans. It’s up to each of us to never forget what being American really means, not only to each other, but the world.

Tomorrow as you put on your uniform, remember the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal:

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these homeless, tempest tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door."

Then, you will understand why I am so “ate up.”