I have gradually and increasingly noticed in my adult self a rather repressed, quiet but fervent American patriot. I write this tentatively, because the idea of being a ‘patriot’ in the (as they say) post-9-11 United States has certain political and social connotations that don’t necessarily apply to me. I am not a Republican. I never voted for George Bush, I disagreed emphatically with the war in Iraq as soon as the first bomb dropped, I asked my husband (then my boyfriend) not to enlist in the military, I think Dick Cheney has in him an eerie evil streak, etc. I suppose I don’t conform to the definition of a ‘patriot’ as it has been branded and marketed by the more conservative faction (to put it nicely) of this country.
But my skin ripples with chills when fighter jets buzz the stadium at football games. I belt the National Anthem, often in the shower. This Christmas, when my in-laws (and specifically my father-in-law, who served in the Navy as a flight officer for 25 years), asked me about living across the Long Island Sound from Manhattan on September 11, 2001, I found myself telling them about one of my wealthier customers at the small neighborhood market where I worked, who bought hundreds of massive American flags, as big as bedsheets, and gave them out in his community. I was crying. I was crying real tears on Christmas thinking about a rich guy handing out oversized flags.
Which leads me to believe that I am, in fact, a closet patriot.
And which also, in some ways, explains my fascination with the military. More specifically: I am fascinated by the individuals–most of them around my age–that choose (though we can debate the amount of choice in it) to give up so much in service of an imperfect country. A few nights ago, in the small rustic bar in my town, I found myself in tears again as I chatted with a warm-hearted, well-mannered, hazel-eyed man about my age over cold PBRs. I asked if he had been a student in my husband’s river rescue class, and he said, “Yes, ma’am,” in that automatic but reverent way of military personnel. He was not forthcoming about his experience in the Navy until I had asked enough questions to make it obvious that I really did want to know. He was a member of a special branch of the Navy Seals, nicknamed The Door Kickers, for six years and four tours. He started bootcamp as one of one-hundred, and by the end of bootcamp, 9-11 had happened and only 6 of the initial 100 had made it through the insane training and testing to be included in his elite unit. He and his “family,” as he called the other five, left bootcamp and deployed straight to the Middle East. They were considered by the US Government to be lethal with their hands. As he spoke (vaguely, of course) about his experiences and missions, he spoke mostly about the other men who were with him, their relationships and stories, their successes and tragedies as a group, their determination to complete their job and get each other home. Under his shirt, he was wearing the dog tags of the four who, when their unit crossed an IED and were literally blown up, had died instantly. His body was found 300 feet away from the blast and he was missing half of his face, but after a year or more in a military hospital and full facial reconstructive surgery, he received his honorable release papers and headed west to start a new life surrounded by nature, where, as he said, “no one knows what I’ve done.” Tears.
So, perhaps rather unoriginally but nevertheless sincerely, I’m pouring out a sip of my Pimm’s Cup today, as I sit in the 4th-of-July sun, for that vet and his four fallen brothers, and for that little reluctant patriot inside of me that will secretly well up when the rockets glare tonight.