4 Veterans Share Their True Feelings About the NFL National Anthem Protests
To those who support the movement, the phrase “national anthem protests” is an inaccurate description. The anthem is not the subject of the protest any more than a bus was the main concern for Rosa Parks. The subject is racial injustice in policing and the criminal justice system. But in the public discourse, as it stands, this is the name it has been assigned, perhaps because those who disagree with Colin Kaepernick and the movement he began see it as fundamentally disrespectful to the anthem, the flag—to America itself. And sometimes, to “the troops.”
There’s been a lot of talk, including from the president, about whether kneeling during the national anthem is disparaging to the service of our armed forces. Rarely, if ever, do these discussions feature the voices of anyone who actually served. We asked four former active-duty military servicemembers—two Green Berets, an Army sergeant, and an Army medic—to share how they actually feel about the protests. Their views diverge significantly, a demonstration of the fact that the military features those from all walks of life, all creeds, all political affiliations, and all races—a true reflection of America. One thing they all had in common? They don’t always appreciate being spoken for.
U.S. Army veteran
In the military, taking a knee is a symbol of taking a break, in a manner where you still don’t lose your fighting stance. You stand ready at all times. We don’t sit on our bottoms, we don’t lie down. We take a knee, because we’re always ready. When I saw Kaepernick initially, my first instinct was [it invoked] the military. I didn’t know at the time that he had some guidance from Nate Boyer, a former Green Beret. But at that moment, I didn’t take any disrespect. I felt it was tactical. I knew there was a reason behind it, but at the time I didn’t understand what it was.
The movement is against police brutality. There are many people in our country, specifically African-Americans, who feel they’re being discriminated against—that there’s racism, that there’s bigotry. I’m not African-American, I’m Hispanic. I cannot deny their feelings. I cannot deny their emotions. I am a veteran. I support my country. I love my flag. I may not agree exactly with what they’re doing, but I do agree with the democratic process. If they feel the need to take a knee and say, “Hey, something’s wrong, and not everyone’s being treated equally,” who am I to say, “No, what you’re feeling is wrong”? What we need to say is, “OK, you have my attention. How do we get going? How do we get this show on the road?”
One of the questions I asked myself is, “When is the right time to start a movement?” There really isn’t a right time. If it’s not them, who? If it’s not now, when? So I feel maybe Kaepernick was the right person to start this movement. I think that celebrities and political figures have that forum that the average person does not have. If I take a knee somewhere, they’re going to look at me one of two ways: One, I’m a crazy woman. [Laughs] Or two, they’re going to ignore me. Because I’m a nobody. I’m just the average citizen. But a celebrity of that kind, an athlete of that calibre—they have a forum.
There’s this paradox in our country, where it’s OK to fight for democratic views as long as it’s overseas. But if it’s here at home, we condemn and shame those who practice democracy. That’s something I still can’t wrap my head around. I’ve never felt such divisiveness in our country. It’s really an uncertain period. You’re always trying to watch what you’re saying. Will this person get offended if I say this? It’s walking on eggshells, all the time. I would hope the movement Kaepernick has started will at least bring these issues to the table. He brought the elephant in the room. Let’s talk about it.
President Trump is always on the news. It’s not shocking anymore that every day, he has something to say. But in reality, I feel that the affairs of NFL players are somewhat trivial at the feet of the United States president. I study psychology, and we look at everything as a symptom of something bigger—of a deeper issue. NFL protesting is just a symptom of a deep-rooted issue. President Trump needs to be focusing on the deep-rooted issues, not the symptom.
I enlisted because I had a sense of patriotism. I wanted to serve my country. Yeah, it came with benefits. But I wanted to serve, especially after 9/11. I took an almost sacred oath: to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. I take that very seriously. I could always take a step back and say, regardless of what’s going on in the world or if my president sends me to war, in the greater sense, we’re fighting for democracy. We’re fighting those who oppose our democratic views, who do not like us because a woman like me can sit down with you right now and voice my opinion. We’re fighting for that.
It’s a common trend right now for people to speak on behalf of veterans, and of Gold Star families. A lot of active Army, they normally don’t speak out because we have really strict regulations. It’s hard to gauge what, in reality, an active-duty person may be feeling. But I do feel that a lot of people like to name-drop [the troops]. All you see on social media is, “Well, according to this veteran,” and then all of a sudden, all veterans think alike. That may not be a true portrayal.
I hope to see veterans, like me, appreciate the democratic process of our country. It’s beautiful. It’s a beautiful thing that we served for a mission: that a woman like me can serve her country, get out, go to school, and then be able to give my opinion without fear of repercussion. So I hope I’m not alone. I’m optimistic.
Sergeant Serna was an Army Petroleum Supply Specialist from 2005 to 2008. She deployed to Afghanistan in 2006 as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. She received an honorable discharge in 2008 after earning numerous awards and decorations, entering the Army Reserve. She has since transitioned to civilian life and is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Methodist University. She lives with her husband, a Special Forces veteran, and two children in the Fort Bragg area.
Green Beret veteran
Of course, [Kaepernick] is fully within his rights. Whether I agree with his actions, that’s completely secondary. Do I think he’s in poor taste? Do I think he doesn’t really understand? I think he’s somewhat limited on what he was trying to say. He was kneeling, initially, I think, for police brutality. The flag does not represent that. The flag represents liberty. The flag represents every single American citizen, and the freedom and liberty we’ve provided to so many other countries. That flag doesn’t just represent our Founding Fathers, and it isn’t just about the military, either. That flag represents everybody who has fought for any type of right in this country. That flag represents Martin Luther King, Jr. It represents Rosa Parks. It represents [Cesar] Chavez, who fought for labor rights for California farmers.
Those people kneeling, they are completely ignorant of what oppression really is. They don’t know. They live in a bubble here in the United States. I don’t think they understand that. In all those dark corners of the world where you’ll find military presence or the U.S., you know what the flag represents? Do you realize how many children and how many families, their eyes light up [when they see it]? They know they’re safe just by us being there. It symbolizes so much more to the people we help than it does to these guys. They don’t even know what they’re doing. They really do not. They have such an opportunity to make a positive influence. Their influence is so large on the future of this country.
If they cultivate a generation of individuals who aren’t proud of this country, who don’t love this country, who’s going to fight for this country in 20-to-30 years? We already have an issue right now where less than one percent of the population has actually worn the uniform following the events of 9/11. Korea we had seven percent. World War II we had 11 percent. Families like mine still believe in love for this country, for what it is. [Protesters are] creating a culture where it’s almost a fad. When [Kaepernick] decided to kneel, he didn’t realize he was opening Pandora’s Box. Today, people don’t even know why they’re kneeling. It’s being politicized, taken so many different directions, that his message kind of got lost. Now he’s created a divisive culture within this country.
My father’s a Vietnam veteran, my grandfather’s a World War II veteran. I served 21 years. Our oldest son, he’s in the 82nd Airborne in Afghanistan right now. Sixteenth deployment from my family. This is what we do. This is how we chose to serve this country. What do we fight for? There’s a commonality between every single person who puts on a uniform. They’re serving something greater than themselves. They’re serving others. There’s a lot of self-serving going on nowadays, but what you’ll find in the military is we’re serving the nation. We’re serving the Constitution. Civilians think we’re out hunting bad guys. Yeah, we do, and we’re pretty good at what we’re tasked to do. But we’re also watching little girls go to school for the first time in Afghanistan. We’re digging wells in villages in third world countries, decreasing the infant mortality rate. You don’t hear about the bridge-building. We’re not just serving freedom or enforcing foreign policy, we’re serving humanity.
There are many other ways to be a good, patriotic American. I didn’t encourage my son to enlist, nor did I discourage it. Not everyone has to put on a uniform and carry a gun. If you look at law enforcement officers, first responders, there are so many ways to be a good, patriotic American. You pay your taxes. Follow the laws. Be a good citizen. Exercise your right to vote. If they want to do something positive, start with the local community. If they came from a poverty-stricken community, why not go back [and help]? There are a lot of NFL players and professional sports players that do that. Start your own foundation. Do something positive. I’m a man of action. People are defined by their actions. What have they done?
If you have representatives speaking, well then that’s their role. They were chosen, whether they’re elected officials or they’re higher-ranking individuals. The president is our leader and he’s our commander in chief. But he’s also an American, he’s an individual and he has the right to his own opinion. He really does. That’s his right just as much as Colin to take a knee, or do whatever he thinks he’s trying to do. One thing I really do not like is when people choose to use the military as some type of political tool. We talked about the percentage that serves. We’re a tiny voice. And those of us wearing the uniform, we’re not allowed to speak up. That’s the rules. That’s part of the deal. When people try to capitalize on that and try to use it—that’s what I don’t like. I really do not like when people use us for their own personal gain.
I don’t feel [disrespected]. I just think they don’t know what they’re doing. Ignorance is the watchword right now. I’ll be honest, I pity them. I feel sorry for them, because they don’t realize the luxuries and safety and freedoms they’re blessed with. That’s what the flag represents: everything they’re blessed with, the millions of dollars these guys have, all the luxuries they have. The flag represents that as well—it represents them. It represents all of us.
Michael “Rod” Rodriguez was a Special Forces Green Beret Sniper and Medic who deployed nine times, from his first in Somalia with the 10th Mountain Division, to his last in Afghanistan with 7th Special Forces Group. He was medically retired after 21 years of continuous service, having sustained numerous injuries throughout his tenure. He is a graduate student at Norwich University and works with a number of veterans’ organizations, including the Green Beret Foundation, for which he is chief ambassador. His wife, Kelly, an army medic, recently retired after 21 years of service. They spoke together, and her view is below. Their eldest son is currently deployed to Afghanistan as an infantryman with the 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan.
Army medic veteran
Growing up, I didn’t have hot water for many, many years. I know what it is to be in need. But at the same time, at the worst point in my life, I had a roof over my head. Or I had a family member’s house that I could go to. There are places where that doesn’t exist, where it’s mud walls and no windows and no running water, and it’s literally miles to the stream. I’ve seen with my own eyes, the kids who go get the water and they don’t even have shoes. You think things are so awful here, and I’m not saying things are perfect—nothing is perfect. There’s always room for improvement in everything. But if you think it’s that bad, please, leave your money in the bank and get a one-way ticket to Afghanistan. I would say Iraq, but not even there. Even parts of Europe are just awful. They don’t have what we have. They don’t have the luxuries we have. Go experience things elsewhere, then come back and talk about how oppressive the United States is.
Was he originally within his First Amendment rights? Yeah, and I do support everybody’s. But do I think he could have chosen a better time to do it? Yes. He is protesting the flag, which symbolizes the country—which actually ironically gives him the right to protest. He’s using the country to protest a very specific subject matter, which is injustice [in policing]. He could have chosen a more relevant way to do it. I don’t feel disrespected by it. Maybe they have some intentions, but it’s fallen on deaf ears. It means nothing to me. I don’t need their approval. It has no bearing on my life.
The other thing is, he’s doing it while he’s working. Most companies do not allow people to protest and voice their political beliefs while on company time. I was in the Army for 21 years, and I couldn’t protest while I was on duty or in uniform. Now I work privately, and I certainly can’t protest while representing my company. That’s for the employers to figure out, and the team owners go out and deal with. But maybe if he would have chosen a way of educating people, actually putting out information using his time in the press conference, instead of on the field during the national anthem—using that time instead of talking about stuff in his [football] game. I don’t know if that’s what he does, but share facts. Share statistics. Empower other people to get out there and do something about it. He would have had a bigger impact, and a much more positive answer from the public. I only listen to and watch news, I don’t watch sports at all. I never have. But NFL ratings are speaking for themselves. The fans tell them what they want. It’s their choice to do it.
I was fortunate to serve in peacekeeping missions on deployments. I served in combat. I’ve had to engage the enemy, but that wasn’t a primary job. But it what was important was something bigger. I’m helping somebody else. I gave medical treatment to a pregnant woman in Afghanistan. I opened a girls’ school. Bringing it home, I’m supporting and defending the Constitution of the United States. It’s not about going around the world and making other places like America. That’s not what we’re about. It’s making the world a better place. And here at home, we live in the greatest country in the world, and I would challenge anybody to say otherwise. I would challenge them to live in some of the darker corners of the world.
It’s about defending all of our rights, not just the ones we like. People have tons of opinions I completely disagree with, but that’s what makes America great. We’re safer. We have tons of opinions, many different beliefs. That’s what makes our culture so unique, and what I serve—to preserve that, and also to bring a little bit of light to the dark corners of the world, and maybe help my fellow man.
Nobody can speak for all the military, because we are just as diverse as the rest of the country. You cannot imagine how diverse our community is within the military. What’s amazing is all different backgrounds, beliefs—yet we’re closer than any fraternity or sorority you’ve ever come across. I don’t like that we’re generalized because we’re not. We’re not all the same.
I wouldn’t even be talking to you had this conversation taken place three months ago because up until September 1st, technically I was on active duty. I would not have been engaged in a conversation like that. I couldn’t because I was a soldier. Even though I was retiring. It’s not that I don’t have the right to have my opinion—of course I did. But while you’re on active duty your first amendment rights are limited and that’s the sacrifice that we make in order to serve. You make your views known in the voting booth, not on a public platform. But it’s very easy to speak for us, because so many people in uniform can’t. I guarantee you you’re going to find some different opinions on same same thing. So people speak for us and it kind of irritates me because it’s not very accurate.
An active-duty Army medic for 21 years, Rodriguez recently retired and now works as a mortgage banker in Fayetteville, North Carolina. She deployed several times through her career, including to Iraq, Afghanistan, and on peacekeeping and sustainment missions. While she always served as a medic, she was also fortunate to hold positions in a variety of other areas within the Army. She and her husband, Michael, have three sons, the eldest of which is an active-duty infantryman.
Green Beret veteran
I was disappointed [when I first saw Kaepernick take a knee], and maybe disagreed with it. But I wouldn’t say I had a huge reaction. That’s the great thing about America: we can all stand up for something we believe in, protest in any way we see fit. I definitely feel there needs to be some conversation. There needs to be some meaningful change. I think there’s ways to go about it. Right now, I think it’s become divisive. There’s got to be a better way to bring people together.
I’m not sure I’m 100 percent aware of what that conversation needs to be. My dad’s black, my mom is white. So I see different perspectives. I went to a mostly minority high school where I grew up. Everybody comes from diverse backgrounds. We see things different ways. Your experiences shape your view of the world. I probably feel totally different now than I did at 21.
Having deployed to other parts of the world, I know how fortunate we are to be here in America. And I understand that it’s not perfect for everybody, it’s not a foolproof system. But I believe in the promise of America, and what it stands for, what the flag stands for. I’m very prideful of what we are as a country. You have the opportunity to improve your situation, no matter what it is, if you’re willing to work hard and put in effort and do the right things. Obviously there’s some luck involved in some of that, but I believe in the promise of that. The places I’ve been and the things I’ve seen—it just makes me appreciate it that much more. I don’t think I fully appreciated the freedoms that were afforded us here until I served, and was deployed to Iraq twice. Afghanistan once. I don’t think I fully appreciated what it means to be an American.
I’m not personally offended by this. People that talk about how “it’s disrespectful to the soldiers”—I personally don’t feel disrespected by it. It’s bothersome, and I don’t like it because I do think America is the greatest country out there. If you listen to the radio, it’s hard to get away from hearing about this protest, in any way, shape, or form. It’s all over my news feed. People feel a certain way, or twist stuff one way or the other. It’s hard to get to the real issue, or how people truly feel. Because you talk to one person, one soldier, and I’m telling you one thing. And the other guys you talk to might say something completely different, or feel stronger about it than others. It’s hard to say if someone’s speaking for me.
In all honesty, there are a lot of bigger fish to fry in the world, than [President Trump] weighing in on it. He’s entitled to his opinion, and he is the president of this country. I support him wholeheartedly as the president. But at the same time, there’s a lot more, and bigger, issues in the world than that. I would hope that eventually those things take the forefront.
I’ve read several articles about players getting out in the community, using their platform to bring police and government officials—whoever needs to be in that conversation so that the community and the police and everybody else involved can develop that relationship. That’s the most important thing: developing it, not just now, but for future generations. And to continue to move the conversation.
Lyles served in the army for 11 years and is a former Green Beret. He served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. He lost both legs to an IED blast in Afghanistan in 2010.
Jack Holmes is a senior staff writer at Esquire, where he covers politics and sports. He also hosts Unapocalypse, a show about solutions to the climate crisis.