We were only little kids, really, so I guess that's the only excuse I have for not truly understanding what we were doing.
It was just what we were supposed to do, and, if anything, it made the place look pretty and we'd get free pizza and soda when we were done.
And so every year we would do it -- plot by plot, stone by stone, we would bend over and jab the stick into the ground and put up another tiny flag next to the grave of a fallen soldier.
Being part of the Sons of the American Legion, we did this every Memorial Day and Veterans Day in Pittsburgh in the 1970s. It was the patriotic thing to do, though truth be told, we just didn't get it.
We'd march in the local parades in town, too. Back then, families and old men would line the streets and cheer when we walked by, but the loudest noise was made for some of those old Veterans.
I still didn't get it.
The parade would end in the cemetery, the same cemetery where we planted flags days earlier, and I'd watch old men cry as a woman sang a song called, "My Buddy." It's a truly haunting song. Clich here for one version from Nancy Sinatra.
Back then, I didn't know it was about soldiers who lost their friends on battlefields. Keep in mind, we were still honoring some of our World War I soldiers who were still alive. The World War II guys, they were still pretty young.
Time marches on. The old ones died. The young ones aged. And still, there was always another generation of soldiers waiting in the wings.
I joined the Air Force in 1986. It was about the adventure and the travel and the freedom.
I quickly learned it was about so much more.
My unit deployed to the Middle East in September 1990 for Desert Shield. Shortly thereafter, we lost Capt. Mike Chinburg, an F-16 pilot, during a training mission. We held a memorial service on the flightline. All of his brothers in flight suits had on big, dark glasses. They didn't want anybody to see them cry for their buddy. I still remember that first night of Desert Storm, as F-16s took off in the inky-black darkness, and we waited with pounding hearts, as they all returned the next morning.
But not everybody made it home from that war. Not everybody makes it home when they join the military.
My friend, Capt. Ed Karlson, an awesome rescue helicopter pilot and wonderful human being, gave his life in a flying accident over Korea. I've done far too many stories on those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. I've talked to their grieving parents.
They all fought for our country -- they all fought for our flag. That tiny stick in the ground, in front of a white gravestone is so much more than just a decoration. When you see it draped over a coffin, or folded and presented to a grieving spouse, or in the background as buddies cry over an empty pair of combat boots at a memorial service, then you'll know why it's not a poncho or a bathing suit decoration or a cape or a towel, and never should be.
Today, June 14, we celebrate Flag Day, to commemorate the adoption of the flag of the United States. It happened by resolution of the Second Continental Congress in 1777, but the day was only established by an act of Congress in 1949. Think of all those who defended our flag in that time, and all who gave their lives, or came home injured.
On my Air Force retirement date in 2006, my colleagues, with precision timing, presented me with a folded flag, as a speaker reminded us all of the importance of Old Glory wtih these very words:
I am the flag of the United States of America.
My name is Old Glory.
I fly atop the world's tallest buildings.
I stand watch in America's halls of justice.
I fly majestically over institutions of learning.
I stand guard with power in the world.
Look up and see me.
I stand for peace, honor, truth and justice.
I stand for freedom.
I am confident.
I am arrogant.
I am proud.
When I am flown with my fellow banners,
my head is a little higher,
my colors a little truer.
I bow to no one.
I am recognized all over the world.
I am worshipped.
I am saluted.
I am respected.
I am revered. I am loved.
And I am feared.
I have fought every battle of every war for more than 200 years...
Gettysburg, Shilo, Appomatox, San Juan Hill, the trenches of France,
the Argonne Forest, Anzio, Rome, the beaches of Normandy,
the deserts of Africa, the cane fields of the Philippines,
the rice paddies and jungles of Guam, Okinawa, Japan, Korea, Vietnam,
and a score of places long forgotten by all but those who were with me.
I was there!
I led my soldiers.
I followed them.
I watched over them...
They loved me.
I was on a small hill in Iwo Jima.
I was dirty, battle-worn and tired,
but my soldiers cheered me,
and I was proud.
I have been burned, torn and trampled
on the streets of countries I have helped set free.
It does not hurt, for I am invincible.
I have been soiled upon, burned, torn
and trampled on the streets of my country.
And when it's by those whom I've served in battle, it hurts.
But I shall overcome for I am strong.
I have slipped the bonds of Earth
and stood watch over the uncharted new frontiers of space
from my vantage point on the moon.
I have been a silent witness
to all of America's finest hours.
But my finest hour comes
when I am torn into strips and used as bandages
for my wounded comrades on the battlefield,
When I fly at half-mast to honor my soldiers,
Or when I lie in the trembling arms
of a grieving mother
at the graveside of her fallen son.
I am proud.
My name is Old Glory
Long may I wave.
Dear God . . . Long may I wave!
When I was a boy, I thought it was just a decoration in the ground. I thought it was a chance for free pizza. Now I know, it means so much more.