This is a revised version of the talk I gave at our ward's Fourth of July flag raising ceremony. I thought I would follow the example of our congressmen and record the talk I would have liked to have given as opposed to the one I actually gave. At the time I felt a little pressure to be brief in my remarks as I was the last thing standing between hungry people and a pancake breakfast:
I have attended quite a few flag ceremonies over the years. I find that as I get older I have a greater appreciation for our flag and ceremonies such as these have become more meaningful and moving to me. I would like to share some of the experiences that have helped me gain a greater appreciation for our flag and what it represents.
First of all, there isn't anything like spending time in a foreign country to help one gain a better appreciation for the United States of America. I know we have our warts and flaws. Living abroad for a while brings these flaws into perspective and helps us to better appreciate the many things that are so very right about America. I served a mission for the Church in Northern Italy, hardly a third world pest hole. Yet, it was a marvelous feeling to set foot back in the United States. I've since traveled to England, Canada, Mexico, Italy, and Russia. Every time I'm gone, one of the best parts of the trip is coming home to the good old USA.
My appreciation for the flag also deepened when I served in the military. When compared to the Army or Marines, its hard to refer to the Air Force as "The Military". I've often told people that I went into the Air Force rather than join the military. I didn't serve in a war unless you count the "Cold War". Yet, I had many experiences serving in the military that increased my love for my country's flag.
I was a Russian linguist in the Air Force. I spent almost two years studying Russian at the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio of Monterey, California. It wasn't bad duty. All of my instructors were native speakers. Some were very old white Russians who had left Russia soon after the communist revolution. Some had left Russia during World War II, while others were more recent Jewish emigres. They all had one thing in common. They had all willingly left the land of their birth, indeed, at the time, they had been desperate to leave their homeland. They were also all very grateful to be living in the United States of America. While they all had interesting stories, I would like to share just a few of them,
Nikolay Nikolayevich Marchenko was just 14 years old when the communists caused the forced collectivization of the Ukraine. In a nutshell, the communist government stole all of the farmers' land and all of their food and caused the starvation of an estimated 35 million people. Nikolay's father had just been arrested and not because he had done anything, The communists simply arrested lots of people at random as a deliberate policy of mass terror to control the people. Many of those arrested were shipped off to slave labor camps. Many arrestees simply disappeared. At this time of government orchestrated famine, Nikolay was desperate to help feed his family. In order to keep his family from starving, he would hide a shovel under his coat and sneak out into the fields at night. He would then dig up mouse holes in order to collect the grain the mice had gathered. He did this at night because if he had been caught he would have been arrested for "stealing from the state."
Having witnessed such colossal evil perpetrated by the communists it was small wonder that many Ukrainians chose to collaborate with the Germans during World War II as the lesser of the two evils. Like many of his countrymen, Nikolay served in the German army for a time. Fortunately for him he was captured by American forces rather than Russians and eventually found his way to the United States.
I briefly had a woman teacher whose name I don't recall. I do remember her high pitched voice and overly rosy cheeks. During World War II she had been serving in the Russian version of the Red Cross. In that capacity, she was sent to Berlin at the end of the war. When she discovered that the city was to be divided by the conquering powers, she hastily walked to the portion of the city that was to be administered by the Americans.
I had another teacher who had fought in the Russian civil war as part of the "White Army". After the communists won the civil war, he fled to China. He was the editor of a Russian Language newspaper in Shanghai until communism took over in China as well. He considered himself very fortunate that he was able to escape China and come to the United States.
I met one Russian during my Air Force service who wasn't an instructor but another enlistee. She had been born in Russia and immigrated to the United States as a young teenager. It isn't uncommon for servicemen to ask one another why they joined. I guess it's similar to convicts asking "What are you in for?" This Russian girl's response to that question was a very simple "To serve my country." I spent seven years in the Air Force and posed that question to quite a few fellow travelers. The responses ranged from avoiding jail to getting an education. This Russian girl was the only one who ever told me she joined the air force just to serve her country. To people such as these, America is a bright beacon of hope and freedom, whose flaws are of minor consequence.
While serving in the Air Force I attended several survival schools, including Land Survival School at Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane, Washington. The last three days of that course was a simulated prisoner of war camp. I'm sure it was very weak compared to any real POW camp but they did their best to make it a thoroughly nasty experience. I guess it's difficult to have a serious POW experience when the captors aren't allowed to beat or torture the prisoners. The amenities did include solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, unpleasant interrogations, a meager diet of watery soup, and generous amounts of harassment. While they weren't allowed to actually beat us, they were able to put us in in extremely uncomfortable "stress positions" and to confine us for a period of time in very small boxes. It was the only time in my life that I have experienced serious claustrophobia to the point where I thought I was going to lose it if I stayed in that box another moment. After that experience, I've felt a lot more sympathetic toward those who suffer from claustrophobia.
Toward the end of the POW camp experience we were moved from solitary confinement and divided into small groups. We were placed in very rough shelters surrounded by high barbed wire fences and sentry towers. They made us assemble in the middle of the camp and subjected us to a lengthy propaganda harangue over the loudspeakers. At some point we were given the command "About face!" As we turned we saw that behind us they had raised the American flag and they began to play the National Anthem. It was a very moving experience. After all these years, I'm still moved to tears when I remember it.
Another very moving experience I had with the flag took place while I was attending the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. Toward the end of the course I was able to go up to Washington, D.C. on a weekend. I toured the Capitol Building, the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, and went through several of the Smithsonian museums. The highlight of the day was the unveiling of the flag that flew over Fort McHenry and had actually inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem that later became our national anthem. It is a huge flag and has been stitched onto a backing for support. It is hung vertically in a climate controlled environment so as to better protect it from decay and is periodically unveiled on a set schedule for viewing. It was an extraordinary feeling to see the actual flag that had endured the long night of shelling and bravely flew in the morning to inspire Key to write the poem.
I think those who are young, shouldn't feel badly if they don't get emotional at flag ceremonies. As they get older they will have their own experiences which will help them gain a greater appreciation for the miracle that is America and what our flag represents. I am so grateful to live in this free land. I know that the United States of America didn't happen by accident. It was part of the grand design of Our Creator to establish America as a place of religious freedom. I am grateful both to be an American and to have the gospel in my life.