Being an American Means Something

“Even today, after being stationed all over the world, in both zones of conflict and those at peace, the National Anthem still affects me.”

This time of the year we look to family BBQs, parades, waving flags, and a general celebration of our patriotism. That is how it should be. There is little that stirs the emotions and waters my eyes more than listening to the patriotic ballads played by a military band, especially the National Anthem.

As I look at the state our nation is in now, with the division, the anger, and the hateful speech, I go back to a time when things were so different. Then, it was important to be an American. You had a sense of pride at being a member of a country that stood for good and moral things.

In 1986 I experienced my very first of many overseas tours in the military. I had enlisted in the US Army at the ripe old age of 30, and I saw things a little differently than many of my fellow soldiers. One thing was constant, however, we were all proud of who we were. We were American soldiers. We were the protectors of the free world, and we never forgot it.

My first tour landed me in Berlin during the Cold War. The Berlin Wall was very much in place, and the division of that city was strikingly evident. This was something like I had never seen before. If you never saw Berlin during that time, the only way to describe it was an entire city behind a prison wall. That’s as close as I can get in painting that word in picture. It was chilling.

Berlin was a city divided by the four victors after WWll. The US, the British, the French, and the Soviet Union all had a sector. Each was under the control of one of those four powers. The US, British, and French sectors worked with the West Berlin German government, the free part of Berlin. The east side, that part of the city behind the iron curtain, was controlled by the Soviets. The East German government played a minor part there.

Unlike what many people think, Berlin was not the border between West and East Germany. Berlin was actually a walled city 150 kilometers behind the Iron Curtain. It was an island of freedom in a land of oppression. Berlin was a very interesting place for a new soldier to be assigned. It was also a very high profile assignment and one mistake would generally cost a soldier their career. It was a “Zero Defect” assignment.

What struck me as so special and so uplifting was the start of each day. As the day started, the three military powers in the West would raise their flags and play their national anthems and if you listened closely, you could hear the French and British military concerns play their anthems from the US headquarters. After those, the US would raise the flag at Clay Headquarters (this was a Nazi headquarter building during WWll), and the US National Anthem would play. Armed Forces Network (AFN) would also broadcast the National Anthem at the same time.

I always got chills and stood a little taller when I heard the The Star Spangled Banner, and I still do. The city seemed to come to a halt as the music played. Soldiers, wherever they were, stopped, turned, and saluted to flag, or the sound if the flag could not be seen. Vehicles on the streets stopped and paused until the music was finished. It brought the importance of what we were doing into sharp focus.

Years later, on other assignments, the effect of the National Anthem was always the same. The pride, the chills, and the understanding of what America stood for was reinforced for me. Even today, after being stationed all over the world, in both zones of conflict and those at peace, the National Anthem still affects me.

For many, the National Anthem is just the music before the ball game or a big race. Unfortunately, too many people see the National Anthem as just a symbol of something from before with little importance or relevance today. Those people are wrong. They are missing the point and missing out, in part, on what has always made America what she is and that is never so clear as when you hear the Star Spangled Banner played on foreign soil.

To those people, I wish they had been in Berlin during the occupation. They would have seen the clear line between good and evil and maybe, just maybe, they would understand. For me, the National Anthem will always be America and hearing it will always instill pride and gratitude for being part of a great nation’s military history. That was never clearer than at that first tour, standing at the Berlin Wall and seeing the Soviet soldiers just a few yards away, and knowing they wished they could have been me, saluting the US National Anthem and flag.

Jon Harris

Jon Harris is a Senior OpsLens Contributor and former Army NCO, Sergeant Morales Club member, civilian law enforcement officer, and defense contractor with over 30 years in the law enforcement community. He is published in Army Trainer Magazine, authored regular columns in several newspapers, and is the author of the Cold War novel Breakpoint. His adventures as a security contractor in Afghanistan and Iraq can be found on www.dispatchfromdownrange.com. He holds a B.S. in Government and Politics and an M.S. in Criminal Justice and is currently completing his Juris Doctor degree.

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