My turn: Protesting is your right, but it is demoralizing

Posted: Friday, November 04, 2005

I have read several letters recently regarding the use of a flag-draped casket as a prop for an anti-war protest. Normally I do not feel compelled to share my feelings on the war with my hometown but this subject is a bit of a sore spot for me.

I do not believe acts like burning the flag or using a flag-draped casket to convey your political/personal message should be outlawed. Quite on the contrary, I joined the military because I strongly believe in freedom of expression among the many freedoms on which this country is founded. I believe those freedoms should be defended. However, I do not believe it is appropriate or considerate to the families of those lost in the war or the servicemen and women who gave their lives to do so.

I understand that people do not agree with the war and/or President Bush. It is truly a wonderful thing that we can so readily and vocally disagree with our government. Many other people in this world do not share this freedom - just ask anybody who was in Tiananmen Square. But there comes a point when your right to vocalization goes beyond a mere political statement and steps into the realm of disrespect. Disrespect for the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines killed in action and the families of the fallen.

One of the most damaging effects on a military's effectiveness is low morale. Perhaps the most significant contributions to high morale are a sense of purpose and support from home. Many Vietnam veterans that I have had the honor of speaking with tell me that what hurt their morale the most, what turned their fight from one of winning to one of survival, was the lack of support from back home. Mr. John Dunker, president of Veterans for Peace, does not want our military members to return to an ungrateful nation, and I couldn't support his feelings on that more. However, the actions of Mr. Dunker's group, and other groups, sends a very clear signal to me and those with me that what we are fighting for is not worth our lives and that the last symbol of respect from our nation can and will be used to further their own agenda.

Protests against the war or the president do not significantly affect how I feel about what I do. However, I have numerous young, very impressionable sailors who are my direct responsibility. It has been the greatest honor of my life to tend to the needs of these sailors, but when I see doubt and uncertainty on their faces it pains me greatly. These fine young men and women can easily ignore the groups that protest the war and the military but they are often deeply affected by groups who claim to support them yet do not believe in their mission. Lack of faith in your mission will kill morale faster than any enemy action ever could.

If you do not support the war or the president that is certainly your right. I have no problem with that. But if you do not support the war but claim you support the troops, such displays are doing a disservice to the troops. The effects of such contradictory signals can degrade morale in the field and further hurt those left behind. If you want to support the troops, tell them you believe in them. When they return home safely, having won and not merely survived, then share your feelings.

The last thing a friend or family member may see of their loved one is that casket being lowered into the ground to the sound of Taps and the flag that covered it being given to a grieving mother or wife. These caskets have a very personal meaning to the men and women who unload the cargo planes of their flag-draped countrymen. To then see that symbol of ultimate sacrifice to be used as a political or ideological tool for those who disagree with what a loved one or brother in arms gave his or her life for is, to me, horribly painful and extremely disrespectful.

• Lt. (jg) Walsh is a 1995 Juneau-Douglas High School graduate who was born and raised in Juneau. He joined the Navy in 2001 and is currently deployed to Japan with Patrol Squadron Four-Zero as a P-3C Orion patrol plane pilot.

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