VFW, American Legion: NFL protests disrespectful to vets; others disagree

Detroit Lions defensive end Armonty Bryant (97), defensive tackle A'Shawn Robinson (91) and defensive end Cornelius Washington (90) take a knee during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, in Detroit.


By DIANNA CAHN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 26, 2017

WASHINGTON — Top veterans organizations jumped into the fray this week over whether National Football League players sitting or kneeling during the national anthem is an affront to patriotism, “disrespecting” active-duty and former servicemembers. Fueling the controversy were tweets from President Donald Trump insulting protesting players and calling for them to be fired.

At the core of the debate: Should highly paid athletes use their positions to highlight social issues, or are those actions during the national anthem misguided?

“There is a time and place for civil debate, and wearing team jerseys and using sporting events to disrespect our country doesn’t wash with millions of military veterans who have and continue to wear real uniforms on real battlefields around the globe,” said Keith Harman, a Vietnam veteran who heads the 1.7 million-member Veterans of Foreign Wars. “I stand for our flag and anthem, and I kneel for our fallen. That’s what patriots do.”

American Legion Commander Denise Rohan called the players “misguided and ungrateful.”

But some players, including former Army Ranger Alejandro Villanueva of the Pittsburgh Steelers, say disrespecting the troops was never the intent and the gesture shouldn’t be taken that way.

“I take no offense,” said Villanueva, who stood Sunday for the anthem as his team waited in the tunnel. “I don’t think veterans at the end of the day take any offense,” he added Monday. “They actually signed up and fought so that somebody could take a knee and protest peacefully whatever it is that their hearts desire.”

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America — which represents many of the youngest veterans — supports tolerance for differing perspectives.

“We have seen that IAVA’s Post-9/11 veterans have opinions all across the spectrum on this issue,” its statement said. “Our members’ opinions, just like our members themselves, are very diverse. We hope all their voices are heard and respected as much as those of any professional athlete or politician.”

On Sunday, 250 athletes on more than two dozen teams knelt or stood with locked arms when the anthem was played, in a show of solidarity against Trump’s comments.

On Monday night in Arizona, the Cardinals also showed a united front, with some locking arms as they stood and others placing hands on the shoulders of kneeling teammates. The Dallas Cowboys, along with owner and general manager Jerry Jones, knelt as a group then stood with linked arms during the anthem. “Trump can’t divide this,” Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant said.

Fueling debate

The debate began more than a year ago as a race issue when Colin Kaepernick, then quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, refused to stand during the anthem as a protest over police treatment of minorities.

What began as an act by one joined by a handful of players turned into a league-wide protest after Trump began a series of tweets Friday calling the protesting players “sons of bitches” who should get off the field. On Saturday, he called on Americans to boycott the NFL.

Gold Star mother Rose Warnsing supports a boycott. “I refuse to watch or spend any of my money supporting a bunch of prima donna millionaires that dance on my son’s grave,” she wrote on Stars and Stripes’ Facebook page. “My son, along with thousands upon thousands, have truly sacrificed all so these boys could play a game in the greatest country of them all. I support the right to protest but not their disrespect for the country my son gave his all for.”

Meanwhile, teams across the NFL considered their responses. The Steelers had agreed to stay in the tunnel before Sunday’s game in a show of unity. But Villanueva was the only player visible for the anthem, where he stood with his helmet by his side and his hand over his heart. Confusion in the tunnel left Villanueva out on his own, Ben Roethlisberger said Monday, something the Steelers quarterback deeply regretted.

“As a team, it was not a protest of the flag or the anthem,” he said. “I personally don’t believe the anthem is ever the time to make any type of protest. For me, and many others on my team and around the league, it is a tribute to those who commit to serve and protect our country, current and past, especially the ones that made the ultimate sacrifice.

“I appreciate the unique diversity in my team and throughout the league and completely support the call for social change and the pursuit of true equality,” he said.

Army veteran Brandy Castilleja believes the protests were misunderstood.

“All of us that deployed, the ones that came home and the ones that did not — all fought so that the ones back home could have freedom, liberty, and justice,” wrote Castilleja, who recently completed 17 years as a combat medic, deploying twice to Mosul and once to Baghdad, Iraq. “They are not protesting against troops. They are trying to bring to light the severe injustice that is going on in this country.”

Symbols of a nation

Trump continued to tweet against the NFL protesters Tuesday, not backing down from his feud with the league. “The only way out for them is to set a rule that you can’t kneel during our national anthem,” he wrote.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders has defended Trump, saying it is “always appropriate for the president of the United States to defend our flag, to defend our national anthem.”

Respect for the American flag and the anthem is a longstanding tradition in the military, where servicemembers are required to stop and salute whenever the flag is raised or lowered and whenever the anthem is played.

“That flag is more than just a symbol of our nation, it means all that’s right about our country,” said VFW spokesman Joe Davis. “And the disrespect that anyone, not just sports people, show toward the flag, which goes hand in hand with the national anthem, is something other veterans don’t tolerate.”

The majority of those who participated in an unofficial poll posted by Stars and Stripes on Monday afternoon agreed. Of more than 1,450 people who answered by late Tuesday morning, 59 percent said they saw the anthem protests as disrespectful to servicemembers and veterans, while 21 percent saw them as an expression of free speech and 17 percent said they are a political act that has nothing to do with veterans or servicemembers. Three percent chose none of the above.

Henry Muller, a 27-year Navy veteran, said for him, the whole issue raised a question about the hypocrisy of many who have taken umbrage at the protest.

“A better poll would be how everyone feels about the people standing in line for beer during the anthem at the games,” he wrote. “Or people sitting on their couches instead of standing for the anthem at home watching the games.

“Does that also offend?” he asked.

Twitter: @DiannaCahn