Earlier this year my father visited Pensacola, and one afternoon we went to see the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, a minor league baseball team. In that beautiful ballpark on the banks of Pensacola Bay, I witnessed what it means to serve. As we located our seats, I noticed an old man, easily in his eighties or nineties, sitting in a motorized scooter.
As I approached, I noticed he was wearing a Marine Corps ball cap. By his age, I knew he had to be a World War II veteran. As I walked next to him, I said, “How you doing, Marine?” Glancing at me, he said, “What?” A little louder this time, I repeated my question and he looked at me and said, “About as good as I can.” A simple answer from a simple man, but his outward appearance and short answer hid something.
A few minutes later, the announcer came over the PA and asked everyone to rise for the national anthem. My father, seated in front of me, rose from his seat and, wearing his ever-present Korean War veteran hat, saluted the flag. As a veteran, I could have saluted, but for some reason, I chose to simply put my hand over my heart, and I’m glad I did.
As 3,000 people stood silently, gazing at the flag, I was able to see that old Marine out of the corner of my eye. Unable to stand, he sat perfectly still, looking straight down the third base line. At first, I couldn’t understand why this man, a Marine who probably did more than many others to defend that flag, wasn’t even looking at it. Then it struck me.
Even though I could not see his eyes, I realized he was staring intently at the 11-year-old old girl who stood on home plate singing our national anthem. It was at that point that I realized the old Marine chose not to look at the flag but took the opportunity instead to look at what it stands for. As he stared at that little girl, I could feel his pride, knowing that he had defended all of us.
He defended our right to enjoy freedom and come together in our communities—young and old, black and white, rich and poor—on a warm summer day.
Veterans do not serve to protect the cloth of the American flag itself, but instead, like that old Marine demonstrated, they serve to protect everything the flag stands for. They serve so citizens can watch baseball and do so safely. They serve so 11-year-old girls can sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before the game.
We must never forget that. We must never let our veterans be dishonored, or their sacrifices forgotten.
[The preceding is adapted from a Veterans Day speech Senior Chief Murphy delivered in Hudson, New York, last month.]