2 USMA Combat Vets. 2 Sides Of The NFL Kneeling Debate. This Is America's Strength


How should a veteran think about the Colin Kaepernick-police brutality-national anthem-NFL-Trump-NASCAR shitshow that has transpired, first slowly over the past few years, then really fast this past weekend, like a C-RAM farting rounds into the air over a FOB? Is there a right way to be an American, a vet, and an NFL fan? Aren’t you all just as frigging tired as I am — of being shocked, of being appalled, of being mad and disappointed and a little uncertain of where the hell this mass of humanity is careening to next?

I thought about all these questions and a truckload more as I — a brief, undistinguished vet charged with writing for a big, raucous, disagreement-laden audience of service members and their friends — puzzled over how to write a column that doesn’t make half my readers reach for pitchforks and mutter profanities at their smartphone screens. I puzzle over that a lot lately.

As a writer, I’m loath to admit that most words, most of the time, can only do so much to bring people together. We’re all getting so used to describing different realities, dear reader, that I fear we won’t recognize each other’s speech at all soon, even though we’re all ostensibly speaking the same language.

But on some level, images can impact us in a way that words can’t. They can reach out of their frames, grab us by the short hairs, and thrash us enough to maybe come to terms with a few of our shared realities. Here are two images that shook me this weekend, in a good way.

One image, on its face, seems ready-made to be a conservative meme for God, country, President Trump, and shutting the hell up about your sad feelings.

The other looks, at a surface glance, like a clear — and to many, terrifying — clarion call to rouse America’s leftist enemies... and the call is coming from inside the house.

Before you form your conclusions about how to feel after seeing these images, take a minute to think about what they have in common. One of those concepts we all learn as kids in school is that of the “greatest common factor”: Given two numbers, can you quickly figure out what whole number factors they have in common, and what’s the biggest among those shared factors? It’s an exercise I run back to often. I wish more people did.

The common factor here is obvious: Army. Not just Army, but West Point. The man pictured at the top, Alejandro Villanueva, offensive tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers, graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 2010, became an Army Ranger, and deployed three times to Afghanistan before taking a journeyman’s route to his NFL starting job. He has a Combat Infantryman Badge and a Bronze Star with “V”.

The rest of Villanueva’s teammates agreed collectively to stay off the field during the national anthem of their game Sunday in Chicago, out of respect for those in the league who have knelt to protest police violence against minorities. Villanueva chose to stand outside, hand over his heart, for the song. He’s been critical of quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who started the kneeling trend (with constructive criticism and support from Green Beret and NFL vet Nate Boyer), and his teammates didn’t expect him to break ranks with them. Many aren’t pleased about it, but they see where he’s coming from. “We support our guy Al,” Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward said after the game. “He feels he had to do it. This guy served our country, and we thank him for it.”

Colin Kaepernick and Nate Boyer in San Diego.Photo via Facebook|Shaun King

Imagine that: Feeling very strongly about the right thing to do, but accepting a teammate who feels differently, because the team — Steelers, Army, America, any, all — is the thing. Villanueva understands that, too. While he personally thinks he has no choice but to stand for the anthem under any circumstance, he’s still down to make America a more perfect union when the music stops. "I will be the first one to hold hands with Colin Kaepernick and do something about the way minorities are being treated in the United States, the injustice that is happening with police brutality, the justice system, inequalities in pay," he has said. Imagine that.

Now look at the man in the picture below him, holding his West Point dress cover to reveal a short but jarring statement: “Communism will win.” Spenser Rapone graduated from West Point in 2016 and is currently in infantry training. But he’s not new to the Army or to enemy fire, as evidenced by his Combat Infantryman Badge, GWOT service medal, and Afghanistan campaign medal. He tweeted the photograph in solidarity with Kaepernick, other NFL kneelers, and left-leaning veterans, whose point is that there’s something weirdly off about the idea that you’re required to stand and hum the national anthem (most of us don’t know the words, after all) because vets fought and died to make America free. Do free speech on our own time? they say. That’s not how fighting for justice works.

Rapone’s no mere troll. He’s a real socialist, who believes American society should be radically reconceived to make citizens more equal. He’s written passionately about “white supremacist iconography” and “profoundly racist culture” at West Point, which he shares as an alma mater with most of the Confederate army’s officer ranks. But it is his alma mater nonetheless. While he renounces private property ownership as the United States practices it, he owns a little piece of the Great Chain and the Point, and its history is now a part of him. He didn’t destroy USMA; he joined it, and seeks to change America from within. As much as he can, as a serving Army infantry officer, anyway. “Symbolic victories are important,” he writes. For all the radical flair, you could imagine him agreeing with the guarded patriotism of that old classical British conservative, Edmund Burke: “To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.”

Remember the common denominator in these seemingly disparate images. Villanueva and Rapone are forever joined in the long gray line, in Afghanistan service, in combat experience. I bring this up not to push the tired cliche that vets, by virtue of their life experiences, deserve “casual ribbons,” free meals, or extra deference for their opinions. No, it’s about a shared love of country — and a shared responsibility to do what you think is best for that country. Neither of them acted out of resentment to others, screamed “fuck you!” or did anything to suggest they don’t take police brutality, or American patriotism, seriously. We may feel that way, looking at one or another of these images, bringing to them our own fears, suspicions, and expectations — but that’s something we’re doing to ourselves.

These are just two guys who ate the same load of service academy crap for four years; lived by an exacting honor code that keeps cadets up in cold sweats at night, hoping that offhand incorrect report to an upperclassman about the noontime menu didn’t sound like an intentional lie; deployed to Asia’s graveyard of empires because their country asked them to; and came back from war in one piece. They agreed to go to Afghanistan and fight real men with real weapons for a centuries-old idea. I am certain they both render appropriate honors to the flag when in uniform. I am pretty sure they both would avoid colors on post if they could; the rest of us definitely did.

“You got a right to burn the flag,” my military mentor in high school — a veteran of Vietnam with the Seabees — used to say. “And you better not do it around me, ’cause I will break you.” I understand the sentiment. That mentor also showed me how to duck into a base building before evening colors to avoid the five-minute salute. I understand that sentiment, too.

All of which is to say that, even in the mind of a war-wearied vet who’ll go HAM on flag-desecrators, this patriotism thing is complicated. We don’t always agree on the symbols and what they mean, because we all want to see ourselves and our best in them. It’s time we looked for each other in them.

If you want to know how to do that, all you really need to do is look hard at Lts. Villanueva and Rapone, the photographs of these two vets shuttling around the internet in the service of this or that political meme on an autumn Sunday. Look hard, not for the differences between them, but for what they hold in common. For my part, I see everything I love about being American, everything I loved about taking an oath to serve my country. I see the potential for us to agree on the Big Important Stuff — namely, that there’s still something worth fighting for, and improving, in America — while tussling over our symbols of Americanness and how to achieve our country.

For once in a loud, tumultuous, and at times scary American era, I see something that makes me hopeful we can still be whole in some meaningful way, even when we’re disagreeing vehemently about how we make our meanings. Maybe I’m wrong; empathy is hard, among the hardest frontier journeys humans can still attempt. But I never knew an America that shied away from hard work.

From left to right: Naval Special Warfare Operator First Class Eddie Gallagher, Army 1Lt. Clint Lorance, and Army Special Forces Maj. Mathew Golsteyn

On Friday, President Donald Trump intervened in the cases of three U.S. service members accused of war crimes, granting pardons to two Army soldiers accused of murder in Afghanistan and restoring the rank of a Navy SEAL found guilty of wrongdoing in Iraq.

While the statements coming out of the Pentagon regarding Trump's actions have been understandably measured, comments from former military leaders and other knowledgable veterans help paint a picture as to why the president's Friday actions are so controversial.

Read More Show Less

A former Soviet submarine that became a tourist attraction docked adjacent to the Queen Mary in Long Beach is expected to be sold soon to an anonymous buyer, with plans to remove the rusting sub by mid-May.

The 48-year-old Russian Foxtrot-class submarine, known as the Scorpion, had hosted paying visitors for 17 years before it fell into such disrepair that it became infested with raccoons and was closed to the public in 2015.

Read More Show Less

Former Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance, whom President Donald Trump recently pardoned of his 2013 murder conviction, claims he was nothing more than a pawn whom generals sacrificed for political expediency.

The infantry officer had been sentenced to 19 years in prison for ordering his soldiers to open fire on three unarmed Afghan men in 2012. Two of the men were killed.

During a Monday interview on Fox & Friends, Lorance accused his superiors of betraying him.

"A service member who knows that their commanders love them will go to the gates of hell for their country and knock them down," Lorance said. "I think that's extremely important. Anybody who is not part of the senior Pentagon brass will tell you the same thing."

"I think folks that start putting stars on their collar — anybody that has got to be confirmed by the Senate for a promotion — they are no longer a soldier, they are a politician," he continued. "And so I think they lose some of their values — and they certainly lose a lot of their respect from their subordinates — when they do what they did to me, which was throw me under the bus."

Read More Show Less
Members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps march during a parade to commemorate the anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), in Tehran September 22, 2011. (Reuters photo)

Fifteen years after the U.S. military toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein, the Army's massive two-volume study of the Iraq War closed with a sobering assessment of the campaign's outcome: With nearly 3,500 U.S. service members killed in action and trillions of dollars spent, "an emboldened and expansionist Iran appears to be the only victor.

Thanks to roughly 700 pages of newly-publicized secret Iranian intelligence cables, we now have a good idea as to why.

Read More Show Less
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Cody Smith (Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force)

Editor's Note: This article by Gina Harkins originally appeared on Military.com, a leading source of news for the military and veteran community.

A U.S. Air Force combat controller will receive the nation's third highest award for valor this week for playing an essential role in two intense firefight missions against the Taliban in Afghanistan last year.

Tech. Sgt. Cody Smith, an airman with the 26th Special Tactics Squadron, 24th Special Operations Wing at Air Force Special Operations Command, will receive the Silver Star at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico on Nov. 22, the service announced Monday.

Read More Show Less