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I Am an African-American Army Veteran, and I Take No Offense to National Anthem Protests

Many people are opposed to NFL players protesting during the national anthem, citing respect for the military as a reason to stand. But Scooby Axson, an African-American U.S. Army veteran, explains that he served to protect our freedom of speech, so he isn't upset by NFL players exercising their right to protest

I have master’s degrees in psychology and journalism. I’m African-American. And I’m a veteran of the U.S. Army.

I spent 16 years in the military, serving tours in Bosnia and Iraq. I supported relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. I was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, for the first four years of my military career and spent the last portion in the Oklahoma National Guard with the 45th Infantry Division.

I understand what it means to serve. I’ve had countless relatives who are currently in the military and some who have retired, including my mother. My brother-in-law, college roommate and many friends have paid the ultimate price for their service. I’m a military man in a military family.

But I take no offense to those who take a knee to stand up against injustice.

I joined the military for many reasons: to uphold a family tradition, to make a difference and to serve a country that had long discriminated against my race. But most importantly, I served so you wouldn’t have to. The military is a volunteer service—the main purpose of which is to protect us on a domestic front and abroad. If it meant risking my life to better the lives of other Americans, I was all for it. Protection of our thoughts and freedoms is paramount to me.

The writer in 2008 at Camp Bucca in Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The writer in 2008 at Camp Bucca in Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

When the national anthem plays at any sporting event I attend, I bow my head, praying for those families who have lost loved ones and those who are currently serving. I take that minute to reflect on lives lost and how my military experience has shaped me into the man I am today.

I have also removed myself before the playing of the anthem and will take a knee if I so choose to.

If the anthem is played on television, I sometimes mute the sound or change the channel. It’s my right to tune out or ignore things I don’t like or am uncomfortable with, and the pain of my service can be too much to bear. The anthem sometimes brings up painful memories I don’t want to recall.

Am I disrespecting the flag or the anthem? Absolutely not. Try to tell me I am and I will repeat what I just wrote.  

Being a military veteran comes with certain responsibilities. It’s about upholding Army Values—Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, Personal Courage—and making sure those who came before me and those who come after me are treated with respect.

Joining the military, especially as a black man, came with great ridicule. People asked me why I was joining “the white man’s Army.” Many high school friends, who aren’t my friends anymore, didn’t offer encouragement for a life choice but instead offered opinions without any concrete explanation of why they felt that way. But those same people are grateful that they didn’t have to put their lives on the line and that they have freedom to say such nonsense.

I served to protect our freedom of speech. I didn’t dodge bullets and mortars in Iraq and land mines in Bosnia numerous times to have people get upset when others, especially NFL players, exercise their constitutional right to protest.

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So what do the flag and the anthem mean to me?

On one hand, the anthem is just a collection of words. But the song and flag also represent a sense of freedom and equality that simply doesn’t exist for all Americans today.

The national anthem, at least the verse that is sung before every sporting event in the United States, makes zero reference to equality. It’s about war and the flag, and it was written by Francis Scott Key, who himself owned slaves. The third verse of the anthem actually references slavery. If the passage, “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave” was included in the first verse, not one African-American would ever sing that song.

Interpret and argue about what the song means all you want to, but its connection to oppression is not up for debate.

There are a lot of people opposed to protesting during the anthem, including President Donald Trump, and they cite respect for the military as a reason to stand for the national anthem. Trump also says this issue is not about race. But to me—an African-American veteran—those shallow arguments don’t hold up.

I don’t feel disrespected if a person chooses not to stand for the national anthem. I fought for your ability to make that choice. What is disrespectful is the use of the great military as the basis to deny some citizens freedom of expression.

I back Colin Kaepernick, Michael Bennett and the many others who have taken a knee and continue to do so until they feel sufficient change has happened. These players feel the Pledge of Allegiance’s “justice for all” line remains an unrealized dream in this country. These protests are about racial injustice and police brutality. It’s not about the flag or anthem, and it’s certainly not about the military.

I’m a veteran of our armed forces. But I’ve been stopped by police and searched without any probable cause, been called the n-word more times than I care to remember and have had people criticize my work ethic at my place of employment. I proudly served my country, but I have firsthand awareness of its many shortcomings.

It’s your right to leave your job, burn a jersey, give up your season tickets or boycott the NFL if you don’t like what you see. But before you do, think about how an NFL player protesting racial injustice might have a point. Maybe you’ll be inspired to create positive change in your community and start a civil dialogue about these important civil rights issues.

That’s what needs to be respected—not necessarily the flag, or the anthem, but what they are intended to represent: the right of every citizen to freedoms guaranteed under the Constitution I fought for. Patriotism comes in different forms, and our history ensures the flag and anthem mean different things to different people. When players take a knee for injustice, they’re asking for America to live up to its ideal sense of self.

As Americans, we have the right to free expression and peaceful protest. And as a military veteran and most importantly an African-American, I will continue that fight for our freedom, whether I or the so-called “son of a bitch” athletes take a knee or not.

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