Colin Kaepernick's decision to sit or kneel in silent protest during the national anthem before NFL games has attracted praise and criticism since he began doing it more than a year ago.
The then-49ers quarterback said he was "not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color."
While some called it a "slap in the face" to the military, many veterans do not see it that way.
"He is exercising his constitutional right, and I'm glad that he's doing it," Benjamin Starks, a veteran of both the Navy and the Army Reserve, told Business Insider in September 2016.
Kaepernick has yet to join an NFL team this season, which some attribute to an active decision by teams to exclude him. But his protest has been debated with renewed vigor in recent days, after President Donald Trump excoriated him and others in the league who have supported him.
"Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out — he's fired!'" Trump said during a rally in Alabama on Friday night.
Veterans have continued to voice their support and opposition to the manner in which Kaepernick protested systemic racism and police brutality.
"I can tell you, speaking for three generations of my family, it is PRECISELY for men like Kaepernick, and his right to peacefully protest injustice, that we were willing to serve," said Michael Sands, a Green Beret who is the son of a World War II veteran and father of an Army officer who served in Afghanistan. "Want to respect the American flag? Then respect the ideals for which it stands. Bullying language and calling peaceful protesters 'sons of bitches' who should be fired aren't among them."
Army veteran Chad Longell, writing in the right-leaning Independent Journal Review, downplayed Trump's comments and called on Kaepernick and others to embrace the flag and anthem. "Focusing on the values those symbols represent will empower us to find the path forward toward the type of future we all desire," Longell said.
In September 2016, Business Insider asked veterans for their thoughts on Kaepernick. Many were happy to share their views, and one thing became very clear: The opinions of veterans can greatly vary. Below, you can see what they had to say, lightly edited for clarity.
"Colin sat down and exercised his right to protest, which is something that I feel like we all swore an oath to defend," said Tom Baker, a Navy veteran who served in the Iraq War.
Tom BakerTom Baker via Business Insider
"I also agree with the statements he made. We don't respect the rights of black and brown people."
"The people that are the most angry are the same people screaming at Obama for his use of executive actions, and people that probably think that the right to bear arms is the only thing in the Bill of Rights."
"I am mostly just tired of pundits and nonveterans using us as a way to throw shade on someone for their actions."
"The whole narrative of, 'You're disrespecting veterans and those who sacrificed' is bulls---."
"I really just want these people to stop telling us what we think, to stop putting words in our mouths, and to really listen to us. We've been at war for 15 years."
"I don't think I have any veteran friends that still think that Iraq was a good idea. Where is all the outrage about the Iraq War? Where is our Chilcot ?"
"If these people truly gave a s--- about us veterans they would've kicked down the doors on the Capitol and demanded a real inquiry into the deaths at the [Department of Veterans Affairs] and the insane number of veterans committing suicide."
"For me it is offensive at the least and painful at the most to see someone disrespect the flag or anthem, as they have become linked to the sacrifices that I have seen made in their name," said Nick Stefanovic, a Marine Corps infantry veteran who deployed twice to Afghanistan.
Nick StenovicPhoto via Nick Stenovic/Business Insider
"I am tired of this 'bringing awareness' crap. I think it does nothing but bring attention to the person trying to do it. It is a way is saying, 'Hey look at me, I'm doing something good,' without actually having to do something."
"Awareness has been brought, and there is nobody who is unaware that our society is not equal."
"There are those who are able to see that we have things like systemic racism, police brutality, and unequal pay for women. There are those who live in denial because it makes them feel guilty. And there are those who fight this inequality by being discriminatory themselves — but there are none who are unaware."
"There are ways to act on these issues without offending others. I have always for some reason had a strong reaction to the injustice and oppression brought on innocent Muslims by Islamic theocracy. I acted, and I went to Afghanistan and can say that the regions I was in were better when I left than when I got there. I didn't have to go and burn the Quran. I attacked the problem."
"We need more attacking the problem and less 'bringing awareness.'"
"Now anyone is free to burn the flag, sit for the anthem, burn a Bible, or burn a Quran, but that does not justify their offensiveness. There is a lot of injustice out there and a need for those who will fight it."
"In the end, my opinion is that this football player took attention away from the actual problem and put the spotlight on himself. If you notice, nobody is talking about racial inequality right now. They are all focused on whether his protest was right or wrong."
"Being a vet, and a cop now, that man did nothing to me — or anyone else for that fact — aside from exercise his rights as an American citizen," said Ronnie Brown, a Marine Corps infantry veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ronnie BrownPhoto via Ronnie Brown/Business Insider
"There's one issue I see with what the guy did, and that is a lot of cherry-picking. By that, I mean it's silly how people can support one person who voiced their opinion as long as what is being said is something they agree with. But let it be something that the masses don't agree with, and now you're a terrorist. You can't condone one and then turn right around and condemn the other."
"Being a vet, and a cop now, that man did nothing to me — or anyone else for that fact — aside from exercise his rights as an American citizen."
"The entitled crowd these days — which sadly includes a lot of vets and police officers — want this guy to apologize to vet groups, police unions, God, Megatron, and everything that falls in between."
"Are you demanding an apology from a man that did what he is free to do? Is that what they think freedom is? Is that what they think this country was based on?"
"He is exercising his constitutional right, and I'm glad that he's doing it," said Benjamin Starks, a veteran of both the Navy and the Army Reserve.
Benjamin StarksPhoto via Benjamin Starks/Business Insider
"If you think he's disrespecting veterans or America, he's not. He is peacefully protesting, making people feel uncomfortable, and bringing press to an issue we should have already been aware of."
"Innocent people of color have died more to the hands of police then they have at the hands of terrorists, so excuse me while I relish the fact that a successful person of color protests in a manner that makes white people in this country feel uncomfortable."
"His peaceful protest makes him more American than anyone sitting behind the computer b----ing about it. He exercised his right as an American, and I applaud him."
"I think it is every American's right and duty to point out what is wrong," said Jeff White, an Army veteran who served for four years during the 1980s.
Jeff White, on the left, serving in West Germany in 1982.Photo via Jeff White/Business Insider
"Colin has the right to ignore whatever he wants. Anyone who says otherwise does not know anything about freedom."
"I believe Colin has every right to protest in whatever way he chooses," said Omar Madrigal, a Marine Corps veteran.
Omar MadrigalPhoto via Omar Madrigal/Business Insider
"I cannot pick which constitutional rights to defend, as I took an oath to protect the Constitution as a whole. I personally would not protest in that manner, no different than those who truly do despicable things like the Westboro Baptist Church protesting veterans' funerals."
"But in the words of Evelyn Beatrice Hall, 'I may not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.'"
"I am more perturbed about the extreme patriotism bordering on nationalism and nativism trending in this country. The so-called patriots are angry at those who don't agree with their version of America."
"Ironically, forced patriotism begins where freedom ends. In that version of America, we're no better than those countries that we are in conflict with."
"The oath I took was to defend the Constitution, not the anthem," said Theodore Robinson, a Navy veteran of operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
Theodore Robinson (and his daughter).Photo via Theodore Robinson/Business Insider
"The Constitution says that peaceful protest is the right of all citizens, and the issues Mr. Kaepernick is protesting have been going on for the entirety of this nation's history."
"It's unacceptable that human beings — citizens of this country — are still being treated as less than."
"I am also infuriated by the knee-jerk reaction to this straw-man argument of, 'It's not what he said — it's when/where/how he said it.' The people that fear this topic always use this when it comes up."
"Our brothers and sisters are dying in the streets, being killed by the very people that swore a similar oath to protect them. Unconscionable."
"It doesn't matter to me what Colin does or doesn't do from this point on. It's up to us, we the people, to address this problem."
"You want to talk about disrespect? Allowing this to continue is the ultimate disrespect to the Constitution, to the sacrifices, to the ideals of this nation. I'm tired of waiting for history to tell us which side of this is right. We know which side is right. It's time to do something about it."
"I don't see this as disrespectful towards our country or the flag. I see it as a way that he has chosen to protest the recent events of racism in this country," said Justin Wood, an Army veteran who served in the Iraq War.
Justin WoodPhoto via Justin Wood/Business Insider
"I think we have a lot of people with the attitude of, 'If you don't like America, then leave!' The best part about all of that is those same people who have that mentality are the ones who are voting for a man who has made his whole campaign about 'making America great again.'"
"If Kaepernick would have worn that silly hat that says 'Make America Great Again' during the national anthem, he would be looked at as a hero in the Fox News world."
"The whole issue that most people have against him is not his lack of patriotism but the lack of white he has on his skin."
"He demonstrated a peaceful protest. He wasn't standing in the middle of a highway causing potential accidents. He wasn't showing signs of violence. He wasn't walking around Walmart with a bazooka strapped to his back."
"He sat on the bench and stayed quiet. He did the exact thing that people have said all protesters should do, and he's being shunned for it."
"This has absolutely nothing to do with being a veteran or not. This has to do with being a human being. That being said: As a human being, I believe that he had the right to do what he did."
"We're the land of the free, right? Just as many others have stretched the freedom-of-speech right, so has he."
"The main difference is: Well, America knows the main difference. Pull up your 'Make America Great' hat a little bit, and see for yourself."
"Do I support him? No. It's crass, and he's ill-informed," said "Sgt. Mak," an Army veteran who served in the Iraq War. (He asked us not to use his real name to avoid potential repercussions from his current employer.)
Photo via DoD
"This guy can say what he wants to. That's the simplicity of this country. It's his God-given right."
"My parents escaped communist Yugoslavia and communist Romania. My first language was Hungarian. I learned English on the block in Flushing, Queens, and school. So if this guy makes millions upon millions, God bless him. That's the beauty of this country."
"Do I support him? No."
"It's crass, and he's ill-informed. I'm guessing he's the type that sees a meme and uses that as proof in an argument."
"The black community has had issues for a couple of decades. I see it firsthand, but he's not helping in any way."
"Put your money where your mouth is. He can make a difference in a small black community — even volunteer at a soup kitchen. He's blessed and lucky, so he should do more than sit down and cause controversy."
"But he has every right to. I'm a Mets fan, so I'm used to self-hatred and rejection when it comes to sports."
"Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequence," said Daniel Schick, a veteran of the Army who left the service in 2014.
Photo via USASOC News Service/Business Insider
"As a representative of his league and profession, he is required to maintain a certain level of professionalism. This means showing restraint and representing his league in a positive light."
"There are numerous accounts of players being fined and disciplined for relatively minor transgressions."
"Given his status on the roster, and past performance, it puts the franchise in a peculiar situation. Whether they cut or keep him, this incident will cloud that decision and affect team cohesion to some degree."
"If he wants to express his personal views on any political matter, he needs to do it out of uniform and not on the NFL's time."
"As a soldier, I was legally obligated to follow those guidelines and refrained from expressing my views while in uniform."
"I believe that Colin's protest was respectful and important. Too much attention is put on the symbols of our nation, such as the flag and a song, and not enough is put on the ideals that should define what makes our country great," said Timothy Loranger, a Marine veteran who served from 1998 to 2003.
Timothy LorangerPhoto via Timothy Loranger/Business Insider
"We should stand during the anthem, or the pledge, or salute and honor the flag when we can do so with genuine pride and respect. When we see our nation faltering, we must put aside mindless patriotism and work together to right what is wrong or unjust."
"Only then will the symbols have meaning. Thank-you, Colin Kaepernick, for honoring the Constitution with a meaningful and peaceful protest."
"It takes hard work for people to be able to understand that the flag is only thread, cloth, and dye. Its value is determined by our ability to demonstrate that the country it symbolizes is truly just, fair, and free."
"His 'right' to sit during the national anthem guarantees my 'right' to call him an a--h--- for doing what he did, without fear of retribution," said Jack McLaughlin, a Air Force veteran who served in the late 1970s.
Photo via DoD
"I don't like it when people use the flag or anthem for civil disobedience, but I really don't care."
"They have as much right to stand or not stand for the anthem, or respect or disrespect the flag, as the people who love this country, flag, and anthem. [They can] sing, stand, and even dance if they want to."
"I would like to know if the racial divide is so concerning to him, then what is he doing to make a change with all the money he makes playing a game? Maybe he should show the foundations and charities he is supporting to help turn the tide of racism instead of, or in addition to, his protest."
"I would like to add that his 'right' to sit during the national anthem guarantees my 'right' to call him an a--h--- for doing what he did, without fear of retribution."
"I don't care about what Kaepernick did or didn't do, beyond the fact that I'm tired of hearing about it," said an active-duty Navy corpsman who has served with Marines and the Navy SEALs. (He asked for anonymity to avoid reprisals.)
Photo via Associated Press
"I think it's ironic that the people who are the most outraged — authentically or otherwise — have given him the most attention. They've rewarded the behavior with which they claim to be so incensed."
"The outrage culture is feeding itself, and growing. This is unfortunate."
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