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Service and Protest: Centre County vets share views on taking a knee during the national anthem

by on November 02, 2018 11:26 AM

It means something to veterans. How could it not?

The flag, the national anthem – these are the things that represent what they sacrificed for. These are the things that represent the country that they love and the values that they signed up to protect.

Some of them saw their friends and brothers in arms make the ultimate sacrifice to protect what these things stand for. Some of them were injured defending the freedom that we sing about as look at the flag during the national anthem.

So how could it not mean something to those who served their country in the military?

“But it should mean just as much to every citizen of this country, because of the freedoms that we all have, because that is what it stands for,” Sam Jones says.

Jones served his country for 23 years in the Air Force and Army. He flew planes in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. At his Warrior’s Mark home, an American flag flies high and proud, along with many other smaller flags around the yard and house. Jones is proud of his service and of his country, and says he respects people’s right to protest. He says he understands why some NFL players are protesting, but he wishes people would find a better way to do it than by kneeling during the national anthem. 

“If you supported the flag as much as you fought against it, maybe you would accomplish something,” he says. “Try taking your lifestyle, the money that you make, into the districts that you come from and do some good with it. Stay away from the kneeling and do some good with what you got. …So, do I approve of the kneeling? No. I fought for that flag, I’ve lost friends to that flag; I blew out my right eye fighting for the flag when I was in Iraq. So do I support it? No,” Jones says. 

“If you want to protest, I don’t care, as long as you do it without damage. You want to march, you want to talk, you want to protest, I am all for it. I fought for those rights, but do it without damage.

“It is an honor to stand up for that flag. Some people say that it is just a symbol, but you know, everything has a symbol. You have a cross that symbolizes Christianity; Judaism has the Star of David; those are symbols for what they believe. The flag is a symbol for what people believe and what started this country. … Standing for the flag means something and not just because it is a flag; it is what it stands for, it is what people died for.”

At the VFW in State College, the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants are playing on NFL Thursday Night Football. Despite a large crowd of men at the club, nobody seems to pay much attention. Nobody is really watching the hockey game on TV, either. The guys seem to be there to socialize and catch up on things over a beer or two.

George Oliver and Matt Farkas are both soldiers, Penn State students, and friends. After a long day of classes, they are glad to meet at the VFW for some food, drink, and conversation. They come from different backgrounds and have different opinions. Both have chosen to not watch the NFL, for different reasons. They don’t let their differences get in the way of their friendship, however. 

“Obviously the first reaction is I don’t like it, but I respect their choice, whatever they want to do,” Farkas says. “Part of what we do to serve is for freedom of speech, so if they want to do it, it is fine. But I don’t know if I like seeing it from NFL players. If they feel as strongly as they do about the issues, than during the offseason why don’t we see them out championing those issues, doing something to help? … I choose not to watch because of that. But it is their right to do it,” Farkas says.

Farkas and other vets do acknowledge that some players who protest might also be helping in their communities away from the spotlight.

He says he was at first supportive of Colin Kaepernick, the now-former NFL quarterback who in 2016 led the movement of some players to kneel to raise awareness of racism and other social injustice, but wants to see more action from players now. 

His friend Oliver applauds the players for taking a stand, and is boycotting the NFL because the league had told players they were not allowed to protest during the anthem.

The NFL in the spring adopted a new policy requiring players to either stand for the national anthem or remain in the locker room until it is over. The NFL Players Association claimed the policy infringed on the rights of players. In July, the NFL and NFLPA issued a joint statement saying no new rules would be issued or enforced. While a handful of players have continued to kneel this season, most have ended that protest.

The issue received renewed attention in September, however, when Nike launched an ad campaign featuring Kaepernick with the slogan, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” Many believe Kaepernick has been kept out of the league as a result of the protests.

“The majority of NFL owners are not people of color, so how can they relate to it?” Oliver says of the protests. “How can you feel sympathy for something that you never experienced in your life and you never will experience? So that is why I am not watching [the NFL]. “People say they are dishonoring the soldiers and the flag, but it has nothing to do with the soldiers or the flag. If a person were to pray to their god that they are worshipping, they get on their knees to pray. It is a sign of respect. I see it as a sign of respect and they are silently protesting something that is wrong in America that needs to change. And me being a person of color, I can really relate to their story as a lot of it has happened to me personally,” Oliver adds. “I don’t think that anyone should do anything violent or slander anybody, but I stand behind them. That is why we serve in the military, for freedom of speech, and for people to be able to do things like this. … But at the same time, I respect Matt and he can have his opinion, and his opinion does not change that he is my friend and we are going to remain friends.”

Farkas feels the same way about Oliver.

“He has had a different life than I ever had, obviously, and we look at things through different lenses. I understand that and I respect it. I know there are soldiers that look at it differently and won’t listen to other opinions, but I respect anyone who has views and experiences that I haven’t had,” Farkas says.

At American Legion Post 163 in Ferguson Township, off of Science Park Road, the game does draw a crowd of football fans. The bartender says that a few other legion posts across the state have decided not to show the NFL because of the anthem protest, but Post 163 still keeps it on. Vets and civilian members of the legion come to watch.

Sharon Conley, from Pennsylvania Furnace, served in the Air Force on active duty from 2003-07 and just finished her time in the reserves in the beginning of October.

“The problem comes when players make it a political platform,” she says of the protests. “The players are not in charge of the NFL, so I don’t think they get to decide. Just like those in the military or civil service don’t get to protest on government time. So, the fact that they are doing this on NFL time when the NFL has been paid to promote patriotism, I think is wrong. We are not even allowed to do that as military or even just civil servants; you are not allowed to go out on company time and protest.

“Honestly, I don’t care if deep down they want to kneel, and that is how they respect the anthem, but if they are using it as platform for a political agenda, I have a problem with that. … They are players in a game and they get paid to play the game. I want to be entertained watching football; I don’t want to hear any of their political views, and I don’t care what they are thinking about politically.”  

Conley was a little put off by the protest the first year it occurred and didn’t watch much of the NFL that season, but she now watches.

Retired Marine Dennis Darr won’t even watch his beloved Pittsburgh Steelers anymore after the protests. Darr says he comes from a line of veterans that stretches back to the Revolutionary War, and that those who don’t stand for the anthem are disrespecting the sacrifices that service members have made. 

“God, country, and corps; I was a Marine and that is what we lived by,” he says. “And when you get to country, that means that you stand up and you show respect for my grandfather, his grandfather, his great-grandfather, all the people who fought to give you that freedom to protest. Give them the respect; don’t turn the respect you should give them into a circus. It is just that simple. They should all stand; we are Americans first,” says Dar.

While he says he respects the players’ right to protest, he feels there are better ways for them to get their point across without disrespecting the flag and those who fought for it.

“Way back in the day in the Olympics they wore the little black glove,” he says, referring to the protest of the USA’s John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. “That was right on, but they stood for the national anthem. Why can’t you?”


Vincent Corso is a staff writer for Town&Gown and The Centre County Gazette.


Vincent Corso is a freelance writer from State College.
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