Strong feelings have been sparked by the discussion about protests during the national anthem when the flag is being presented. This photo of New Orleans Saints players before last Sunday’s NFL game in Charlotte illustrates the diverse actions amid such ceremonies. Local veterans voiced their thoughts in today’s column by The Herald’s Andrew Dys. Bob Leverone AP
Strong feelings have been sparked by the discussion about protests during the national anthem when the flag is being presented. This photo of New Orleans Saints players before last Sunday’s NFL game in Charlotte illustrates the diverse actions amid such ceremonies. Local veterans voiced their thoughts in today’s column by The Herald’s Andrew Dys. Bob Leverone AP

Andrew Dys

A disgrace, a right, both? York County vets who fought sound off on NFL protests

By Andrew Dys

adys@heraldonline.com

September 29, 2017 05:15 PM

UPDATED October 02, 2017 04:00 PM

What do local veterans say about NFL players’ protests during the national anthem when the flag is being displayed? The Herald went to those who have fought for this country and asked their thoughts.

The discussion has reached a high pitch since President Donald Trump’s comments a week ago, when he said the players should be fired and referred to them in a less-than-complimentary way.

Reporter Andrew Dys recently talked to members of American Post Legion 43 in Fort Mill and Post 3746 in Rock Hill

Post 3746, whose members are mostly African American, dates to a segregated era. The membership has remained constant. Only white members were present on this day at Post Legion 43.

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The veterans of both races had strong feelings.

For some, the feelings were rooted in respect for the United States flag and the traditions associated with honoring flag-related ceremonies. One veteran shed tears as he talked about it.

For others, their feelings were rooted in support for the the message professional athletes tried to deliver. That message focused on racial inequality concerning criminal justice and equality in America. Another veteran vividly described walking past protesters as he walked through an airport on his way to, and returning from, Vietnam.

The veterans agreed on one issue. They all fought, risked their lives, and some were wounded, so all Americans have a right to freedom of speech. And that means the right to protest.

Listen to the veterans. Responses were edited for brevity. Go to heraldonline.com to see video of the interviews.

Legion Post 43

Some, such as members at American Legion Post 43 in Fort Mill, are so upset that the post is considering turning off football on Sunday, said Wallace Coleman, a longtime member and post officer who is a Vietnam War Navy veteran.

“It has been talked about a lot by the members here,” Coleman said.

Coleman said he and other veterans fought for the rights of all Americans, and he respects all those rights, but he says kneeling during the anthem is wrong. Coleman agreed with Trump that the protest rises to the level of a firing offense.

Post 43 commander Mike Craven, an Army veteran, said he wishes the problems at the core of the protests -- inequality -- had been addressed in this country before there was a need to protest. Craven said he “hopes society improves” so that all Americans believe and can be assured there is equality. But the protest during the anthem, as Americans collectively honor the country and its flag, are “sad” and appear to show “contempt of patriotism,” Craven said.

“I have pledged my allegiance to the flag thousands and thousands of times. I would give my life for my country,” Craven said.

The issue is emotional and very important to veterans, Craven said.

One veteran of the Army, at the post Thursday night, was so overcome with emotion about the protests and his opposition to the protests that he broke down in tears.

Yet many of the veterans talked about the importance of freedoms for all in America. Post judge advocate William Epps, an Air Force veteran, said, “I understand they have a Constitutional right to freedom of expression, so in some ways I am torn about it.”

But, Epps said, the protest during the anthem is something he can not tolerate.

“I personally feel like it is a disgrace to our flag,” Epps said. “I can turn off my TV in a small vote against it.”

Don Bennehoff, a 30-year veteran of the Navy and Coast Guard, called the protest during the anthem “a disgrace.”

“If it wasn’t for veterans, they wouldn’t have a flag to stand up for... they might be speaking Chinese or Russian,” Bennehoff said.

“It’s a game, it’s only a game..and they are making money out of it...They better say their prayers at night, the reason they have a flag is because of all of us,” said Paul Commire an Army veteran, pointing at other veterans.

Post 3746

For many other veterans, there is no debate over the right to protest. They, too, fought for it. Some were wounded fighting for it.

Vietnam veteran and retired York Police Department officer Wilson Barnette said when he left York for the military and Vietnam, people were protesting the war. Those protests hurt him.

“It was an embarrassing situation, that we were going into a hostile place, and they were protesting in this country,” Barnette said.

Yet Barnette, the first full-time black police officer in York, the first black York firefighter and the first black York rescue squad member, said the president’s comments are divisive. He said Americans have a right to protest as they see fit.

“I respect the man who didn’t stand for the flag, because the Constitution says he has a right to do so,” Barnette said.

Barnette and other members of Post 3746 say the issue of inequality in America has been lost in the furor over whether the NFL protests insult the flag and the country and those who served.

Post 3746 is a predominantly black post, created during the segregation era, when blacks were not allowed to join veteran organizations, and it endures to this day.

“I fought in Vietnam, and I paid dearly for everyone to have the right of freedom of speech,” said Post 3746 member and disabled Vietnam veteran Grady Meeks, who served in the Air Force.

These veterans do not kneel when the national anthem is played. At a funeral of a Vietnam War veteran and post member Wednesday afternoon, a dozen of them stood during the ceremony and attended in post uniforms to show their love for a fellow soldier and America. During that service, the preacher told the church: “Here lies a man with the American flag on his coffin -- a man willing to die for that flag on the battlefield.”

Several members, including John Abel, John Gladden, Sammy Williams and others, said after the service that they were upset that President Trump would call someone an SOB and call for players to be fired, saying it was wrong and disrespectful. Naila Crawford, daughter of disabled veteran Harley Crawford of York, said the players protesting are standing up for what is going on today in America and are “raising awareness.”

Post member Melvin Poole, a Vietnam veteran with the Air Force and former president of the Rock Hill NAACP, said the issue of why the players are protesting -- concerns about inequality and police shootings of black people -- has been lost in the debate over what some say is the right place and time to protest.

Many black veterans, including Poole, see both sides of the issue, because of their deep love for flag and country and the rights of Americans to speak up about the country they love.

“I support the flag. I stand every time the national anthem is played,” Poole said. “But at the same time, I support the NFL players’ right to protest. We support them, we are behind them, and we love America and honor the flag.”

Poole said troops went to war to fight for freedoms and rights, yet he is disappointed in Trump’s comments.

“He is using the highest house in the land to try to embarrass, to ridicule, individuals exercising their God-given rights,” Poole said.

Post member Charlie Robinson, a Vietnam combat veteran, said it’s an American right to protest, even if some disagree with the message or where the message comes from.

“The NFL players have a right, based on the Constitution, to have their say, to have their First Amendment freedom,” Robinson said. “Just like President Trump has a First Amendment right to say what he wants to say. I don’t agree with what he (Trump) said, it is derogatory towards anybody who does not agree with him...I respect the flag. I believe in that flag. I fought for it.”

Robinson said when he came back from Vietnam, there were flag-burning protests and “I didn’t like it, but protesters have a right, being United States citizens.”