Iraqi Freedom Veteran Reflects on Meaning of Flag Day
By Capt. Steve Alvarez, USA
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 14, 2005 It's been a little more than two months since I returned from Iraq.
More than a year earlier I promised my wife I'd come home safely, and the day I returned, hours after I had come home, I watched my wife eagerly remove the Blue Star Service Banner that hung in our front window, and she happily watched me bring down the yellow ribbon that had hugged our yard's corner tree for a year.
The symbols of my family's hardship and sacrifice were now finally gone from the landscape of my neighborhood. Passersby and neighbors, noting the missing banner and yellow ribbon, stopped by and welcomed me home. My family's soldier was home, and the tattered, frayed ribbon that weathered three Florida hurricanes, and the banner that faded in the setting sun each day were now stowed for posterity.
Before I left Iraq, I, too, removed an item from display. It hung in the public affairs "hooch" at Phoenix Base in Baghdad, and also briefly in my quarters. The item had made the long journey from the United States to Iraq. Now back home, it sits far from the angry sounds of mortar, rocket and small-arms fire so familiar to soldiers in Iraq -- now also familiar to this flag. It is a U.S. flag flown over the U.S. Capitol on the day I became an Army officer.
Before my duty in Iraq, the flag served as a moral compass that guided me and kept my course true after I decided to leave the enlisted ranks and set my course on an officer's career path. It kept me focused and committed to the oath I took when I became a second lieutenant. I kept it within eyeshot in my office. Looking at it as I weighed options more than once helped me make sound military, personal and ethical decisions.
In Iraq, the flag was still a source of direction. The enemy routinely attacked us using indirect fire. On one occasion a round hit our compound, but did not explode. But another hit so close that the wall-draped flag waved slightly from the blast that violently shook the walls.
I looked around the hooch as we hugged the floor, and for some strange reason I felt reassured, safe. "It's going to be fine," I told my soldiers. I stared at the colors as the mortars continued to hit, and found an immense source of strength. I was never able to explain it, but every time we were attacked, if I was in the hooch, I always looked to that flag for a sense of peace, for stability, to keep me focused and grounded.
When I was in Fallujah, Iraqi security forces raised their nation's flag in a scene reminiscent of U.S. Marines raising the flag at Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima, Japan, in World War II. Having seized Fallujah's hospital, one of the major objectives in Operation Al Fajr (Arabic for "dawn"), Iraqi special forces lifted their nation's colors, and in doing so lifted their comrades' spirits. And while the raising of the Iraqi flag inside of Fallujah's city limits was not as dramatic as the Marines raising the U.S. flag in the Pacific, to me, an officer sent to Iraq to help support the training of Iraqi security forces, it was equally inspiring.
As I served in Iraq, I wore the U.S. flag on my uniform. The flag accompanied me as I traveled the sometimes-dangerous streets of Iraq and flew with me in Iraq's not-so-friendly skies. My U.S. flag patches are the only patches from my uniform that I have kept.
Now, symbols of my war service, like my flag patches, are securely tucked away in a keepsake box, and my commissioning flag sits on a shelf in our den encased in wood and glass. Someday I'm sure they will again serve as a source of inspiration.
But today is Flag Day. And for my family, our house is not our home without the flag waving gently, quietly, proudly in the breeze on our front porch. For us, our flag symbolizes that we are free to do what we want, when we want. It represents freedom of spirit, who we are, what we stand for, and what we're willing to endure for liberty.
That's what kept me focused in Iraq and kept me believing in our mission. To me, the flag represents my family, our way of life -- many, united as one. And maybe that's what Flag Day is all about. The flag is something different to everyone, and in that disparity there is unity, a bond.
I've returned to my life as a part-time soldier, and I am in Washington performing my annual training. It comes as no surprise that on my son's first visit to Washington, the first two places we visited were the Marine Corps War Memorial and the National Museum of American History.
The Marine Corps War Memorial, which depicts that famous World War II flag raising, now reminds me of the nascent Iraqi forces raising their country's colors in Fallujah. The symbolism behind the monument has become, for me, one and the same with the symbolism of that moment in Fallujah.
And draped at the entrance of the National Museum of American History is a symbol of sorrow, resolve, determination and inspiration -- the mammoth flag that covered the span across the Pentagon's damaged walls the morning after Sept. 11, 2001.
And as expected, the encased flag in my den and the flag patches I wore on my uniform are once again serving as a source of inspiration.
You are, after all, reading this article.
(Army Reserve Capt. Steve Alvarez was public affairs officer for Multinational Security Transition Command Iraq.)