A plan to salute flag, veterans at stadiums
By Mitch Smith | Chicago Tribune | Published: November 4, 2013
CHICAGO — If Robert Griffith's plan takes hold, an Iraq War veteran wearing a Bears cap and Jay Cutler jersey would rise during the national anthem to salute the flag. A few rows away, a Marine from World War II would lock his right arm into a salute. All around Soldier Field, and at stadiums across the NFL, other veterans would stand and do the same.
Griffith's dream is unlikely to become reality this Veterans Day weekend, when the retired Navy commander hoped teams would start a tradition of inviting veterans to salute. An NFL spokeswoman said every team is planning events to recognize current and former military members in November, but only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were planning to ask vets to salute.
But the idea has gained prominent supporters, including some lawmakers and former astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who hope it continues to gather steam.
The simple gesture of saluting, innocuous as it may seem, is governed by federal rules. Until 2008, veterans had to be wearing some sort of uniform — an American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars cap sufficed — to render the military salute.
Recent changes approved by Congress mean a uniform is no longer required to salute during the national anthem or certain flag ceremonies. But the Legion and VFW disagree about whether that's a good idea, and many veterans either don't know about the rule change or are unsure whether they should participate.
Legion members passed a resolution last year asking Congress to restore the old standards. While he understands the intent of the updates, American Legion spokesman and flag expert Mike Buss said they create a slippery slope. When veterans out of uniform start saluting, Buss said he worries that children or others who haven't earned the privilege are likely to follow suit. Civilians are not supposed to make a military salute.
"When Grandpa goes to the ballgame and he does the military salute, they'll think 'I can,' and really they can't," Buss said. "Of course, they're not going to go to jail. But it's not proper etiquette."
Griffith, of Arlington Heights, takes another approach. He believes that inviting vets to salute at football games would give fans the chance to honor them. Though no invitation is required, Griffith said many veterans are hesitant to salute alone. Others, he believes, simply haven't heard about the changes.
"This is something that Congress has recognized and given them the opportunity to do it and it just hasn't happened," said Griffith, 79. "My goal is to … make these guys feel comfortable as they see one after another standing up and it just becomes part of what they do."
For some Bears fans, saluting is already part of pregame tradition.
Peter Runich, who grew up in Gary but now lives in North Carolina, said he earned the right to salute the flag by serving in the Army and National Guard. Runich, wearing a Robbie Gould jersey, touched his finger to his eyebrow in a crisp salute during the national anthem at a Bears game in October. The gesture led to conversation with other veterans seated nearby, he said.
Runich is part of a tradition that dates to the Revolutionary War, when Continental soldiers would greet officers by removing their tricorn hats and sweep them to their side. The salute has deeper roots in Europe.
"We can literally trace it back to the age of chivalry," said historian Richard Baker, of the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center. "One of the viewpoints is it comes from the time frame when the knights would meet each other upon the fields and raise their visors. It became a sign of respect and acknowledgment."
After the Civil War, the U.S. military adopted specific rules describing how and when to salute. As decades passed, the regulations were tweaked and rewritten.
Joe Davis, a VFW spokesman, said his organization supports the updates and another bill before a House subcommittee that would let nonuniformed vets salute during the Pledge of Allegiance. That said, he doesn't want to create the perception that veterans require lawmaker instructions to honor the Stars and Stripes.
"The military folks don't need to be told how to show proper respect for the flag or our national anthem — it is ingrained in us as American patriots," Davis said. "Part of our mission as military veterans is to help educate the rest of America about what service to country and patriotism means."
Griffith isn't alone in lobbying the NFL to embrace veteran saluting. Aldrin is remembered for saluting the American flag on the moon. He's now hoping the NFL invites him to salute on camera at the Super Bowl to raise awareness about the updates to the flag code.
"I wasn't really in a military uniform" on the moon, Aldrin told the Tribune, but "when we finished erecting the American flag, I felt it was appropriate for me as a veteran … to hand-salute the flag. That was one of the proudest moments that I could reflect on."
So far, Aldrin and Griffith's efforts have yet to receive the NFL's endorsement.
A Bears spokesman, who said stadium events last Veterans Day included a re-enlistment ceremony and honoring a World War II servicemember, said the team was discussing Griffith's idea with its military contacts but hadn't made any plans to institute it.
While he's supportive of other efforts to recognize veterans, Griffith said he hopes his idea will catch on. He said he believes seeing veterans, old and young, rising to salute would send a powerful patriotic message to others in the stadium and those watching on TV.
"Things change," he said, "and I think that this is an absolute enrichment of our flag ceremonies."