We’ve heard for years about the strength it takes to kneel for the national anthem, but what about the strength it takes to stand? It’s the same strength it takes to stand up and answer the call of duty when others would kneel and bow their heads, unwilling or unable to make the same sacrifice.
Early Saturday morning, I accompanied my 12 year-old son and his violin group, the Barcel Suzuki String Academy, to Milwaukee's Mitchell International Airport to perform for World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam War veterans as they waited to board planes bound for Washington, D.C. courtesy of the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight. The students, who ranged in age from mid-elementary school to mid-high school, played patriotic medleys as the veterans waited to line up for boarding.
As they played, the veterans took out their phones to film them, sang along, or just quietly watched and appreciated the entertainment. When each of the three groups of veterans lined up to board, I made an announcement for everyone nearby in the terminal to rise if able, remove their hats, and honor America as the kids played the National Anthem.
The third and final time they did, I happened to notice an elderly African-American veteran in a wheelchair sitting and watching intently as the students played their patriotic medley. I am Barcel Suzuki's unofficial photographer and had to focus on taking pictures and video of the performances as well as helping shepherd a dozen kids around an airport, so I didn't get a chance to talk to him about his service or even learn his name, but while I was taking pictures, I couldn't help but notice his smile. He was positively while beaming watching the kids and I thought I saw the tiniest glisten of a tear in the corner of his eye. That smile didn't seem to leave his face for the five or ten minutes he watched them play
Once I made my announcement that the National Anthem was starting, I lost sight of him and didn't give it much thought until the Anthem was reaching its crescendo and I panned my camera to the crowd of veterans, volunteers, and random passengers standing at attention either saluting or with a hand over the heart. There, up from his wheelchair and leaning heavily on a cane was the the African-American veteran standing with a hand over his heart, still beaming at the kids playing the Anthem.
Now it was my turn to have a tear form in the corner of my eye. I only glimpsed him for a moment, but in that moment I could tell how much strength it took for him to stand--even for a moment--but no matter how much strength it took, he was going to stand for his National Anthem.
The strength to stand is the strength to quietly do what is required and do it without a complaint or a “woe is me” lament. It’s the courage to avoid the “look at me” egotism of keeling for the Anthem—all the while looking around to make sure the TV cameras are rolling. It’s the courage to once again put America—warts and all—before self.
Really, the strength that elderly man showed to stand on Saturday was the same strength he showed to stand as a young man so many years ago. That strength was never really celebrated, nor did it ever demand to be celebrated. It merely stood because standing was the right thing to do. And it still is—even when no one is watching; even when no one seems to care. The truth is, America has been watching intently and does care deeply, because at its core, the strength to stand is America.