Opinion: Flying the flag in ‘The Desert of Death’
October 29, 2006
Editor’s Note: The following column ran on the Opinion page in the Oct. 29 European, Mideast and Pacific editions.
I just turned 36 years old and, frankly, the older you get the less you care about birthday gifts. Until this last birthday.
That was when I opened up a package sent from my brother, a Navy officer currently serving in southern Afghanistan. Inside the package was an American flag, the dust of Afghanistan still embedded in its fabric.
“I flew this flag on your birthday,” my brother wrote in a note. “This was the official U.S. flag for the camp that day.”
My brother’s camp is in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, a drug-ridden, desolate place covered in a talcum-powder dust that invades every piece of military machinery, office equipment and human pore. Some in the military dub it “Tatooine,” the barren planet where “Star Wars” hero Luke Skywalker was raised. Afghan locals give it another name: “The Desert of Death.”
Holding that flag as I sat in the relative green lush of my backyard in suburban Maryland, I was overcome with emotion. Speechless, I handed the letter to my wife, who also cried.
I also had spent time in Afghanistan (working for six months last year in Kabul as a media consultant), which was one reason my brother wanted me to have the flag. When I was in Afghanistan, part of my job was to get people in other countries to care about the efforts made in Afghanistan’s reconstruction and drug war.
I did this through the medium that I know best: the press. My team and I wrote op-eds for Afghan officials and arranged foreign media interviews. We built a modern press conference room and trained Afghans on how to deliver messages to the media that resonated with journalists and their audiences. We did this as part of the important effort to implore the world to help in Afghanistan’s struggle to set itself back on track after decades of violence, oppression and isolation.
But that flag had a stronger message to me personally than all of the press conferences and interviews combined. We hear a lot in America about how we need to support our troops. We put yellow ribbons on our cars and greet returning servicemen with fanfare. Agree or disagree with what our military is doing around the world, you’d have to be a cold-hearted person not to recognize the sacrifices our men and women are making.
But support can go both ways. It can be “pushed” from this side of the planet through letters from schoolkids, community groups and veterans organizations who tell our soldiers they are not forgotten. But it can also be “pulled” by those serving if only they give us a glimpse of their lives.
For me, that folded, dust-covered flag conjured up an instant mental picture of the Stars and Stripes flying proudly over a desert moonscape 10,000 miles away. I can see my brother lowering it at dusk, the sun straining blood-red through the haze of another day in one of the most inhospitable places on the planet. I’ll never know exactly what my brother is going through, but for a second, I could picture him there. And, as he later told me, “I could see that flag flying from around the base that day, and I would look up at it and say hello to you, brother.”
I hope the leaders of our armed forces are making sure to send a message down the chain of command. Their message should be simple: Let’s help remind people back home of who and where we are. From those serving in outposts that most Americans will never see, let’s send them something that reminds them that we are born of a free country, that we are dedicated professionals and that we are making enormous personal sacrifices. Let’s fly the flag for them.
So, if you are serving in the armed forces overseas, fly a flag for someone you care about and send it back home, dust and all. Because, brother, besides your safe return, it’s the best gift you could ever give.
John Boit is the CEO of Melwood Global, an international strategic communications firm with offices in Boston, Washington and Dubai, United Arab Emirates. He lives in Silver Spring, Md.