Paying respect to our nation's colors

An American Flag is flown from a light post on Bolling Air Force Base, D.C. (U.S. Air Force photo)

An American Flag is flown from a light post on Bolling Air Force Base, D.C. (U.S. Air Force photo)

AIR FORCE DISTRICT OF WASHINGTON -- The Stars and Stripes. Old Glory. The Star-Spangled Banner. Regardless of what we call it, there is no doubt that the flag of the United States of America is one of the most powerful and enduring symbols of our nation. 

On June 14, we will once again have the opportunity to recognize this symbol as we celebrate Flag Day. 

Flag Day was first observed in 1877 on the 100th anniversary of the Continental Congress' adoption of The Stars and Stripes as the official flag of the United States. In that year, Congress asked that all public buildings fly the flag on June 14. 

The idea quickly caught on, with many people wanting to participate. In 1885, a Wisconsin schoolteacher named Bernard J. Cigrand advocated for June 14 to be known as "Flag Birthday." Over the next several years, Mr. Cigrand's efforts caught on and the idea spread to other schools. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Flag Day as a national celebration. However, the holiday was not officially recognized until 1949 when President Harry Truman signed the National Flag Day Bill. 

Since becoming an official symbol of our country, the Star-Spangled Banner has held a special place in the hearts and minds of most Americans. People may have differing thoughts when they think of the Stars and Stripes. For example, young students may be reminded of the Pledge of Allegiance. Sports fans might think of the flag being displayed during the opening ceremonies of a sporting event. The flag holds a special meaning to veterans who have placed their lives in harm's way to defend not only Old Glory, but all that it symbolizes. 

For some, the feeling is deeply personal. I think of my grandfather's flag that I carried with me to Afghanistan. I think of the many times I stood silently along the streets at Bagram as the flag-draped caskets of fallen comrades made their way to the flightline for their final trip home. I think of the Honor Guard Airmen who stand in Arlington as they hold the flag above a grave, and then fold the flag with pride and precision. 

I recently reflected upon the flag while standing at the foot of Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Paul W. Airey's grave during his Full-Honors funeral. It occurred to me that while we spend our lives and careers honoring, defending, and sometimes making the ultimate sacrifice for our flag, at the end of our life, the flag honors each of us. Old Glory does not ask how long you served or how far you advanced in your career; it cares only that you served our country and swore to defend it with your life. 

Those who oppose our nation and our policies certainly appreciate the symbolism in our flag, for many of them find it an easy and visible target for their protests. While our detractors may destroy a symbol made of cloth, they cannot destroy the fabric of freedom and justice that binds our nation together. For even as the fragments of cloth are destroyed, the symbol of our nation appears as a visible testament to the Voltairian quote, "I disapprove of what you say, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it." 

Our flag is a powerful symbol. Our flag symbolizes victory as it did when it was raised on Mount Suribachi following the battle for Iwo Jima. It is a symbol of mourning when it is lowered to half-staff in the wake of national tragedy. Our flag has served as a symbol of unity and resolve as it did when flown over the fallen twin towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. At a citizenship ceremony, a flag in the hands of a new citizen symbolizes the fulfillment of a life-long dream. 

As we pause to celebrate Flag Day, think of what the flag means to you and consider what it means to others. Finally, think of the words of Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane during a 1915 Flag Day address, "I am whatever you make me, nothing more. I am your belief in yourself, your dream of what a people may become. I am the clutch of an idea, and the reasoned purpose of resolution. I am no more than you believe me to be and I am all that you believe I can be. I am whatever you make me, nothing more."