Our flag and national anthem represent freedom, and that freedom includes the right to protest. Period.

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I enlisted in the U.S. Navy after graduating from Bellevue High in 1975. I didn’t do it because I wanted to be a patriot, or even because I particularly loved my country. I did it because I thought it would be a fun way to see the world, and an interesting break between high school and college.

The truth is, I also fell for the “It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure” line.

I learned much during my four years aboard the USS Leahy at Naval Station San Diego: I learned that white kids from middle class, college-educated families were rare in the enlisted ranks, and that about half the sailors on my ship were minorities, and often high school dropouts. I learned that most enlisted men came from rural communities and depressed parts of the country. I learned that a large number of my shipmates were there because it was an opportunity to them. I learned from listening to my black shipmates that racism was still rampant in America, and that the safe, opportunity-rich white suburb of Bellevue where I grew up was not their experience.

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Finally, I learned — as did anyone who made it through boot camp — that teamwork was everything, and that black guys and white guys get along fine when the playing field is level as it is in the military. We lived together, worked together, and as young men, didn’t care about — or think about — patriotism. We just wanted to get our job done so we could “hit the beach” in exotic ports like Tokyo, Hong Kong, Manila and Singapore.

When I was honorably discharged, I used the GI Bill to pay for an education at the University of Washington. I had a sense of pride knowing that I earned my college tuition by often working 12-to-16-hour days swabbing decks, cleaning toilets and piloting small boats through foreign harbors at all hours of the night. Those four years also embedded in me a much broader view of, and an appreciation for, what life was like as a minority in the poor working-class cities of America.

As I watch the current debate about patriotism, the NFL and the flag, I’m reminded of how I felt right after 9/11, when the loudest voices “cheerleading” the war in Iraq were almost exclusively those of white, privileged conservatives in politics and the media. Men who themselves skipped military service, but had the gall to think they had the moral authority to criticize anyone who suggested the Iraq war was a disaster waiting to happen, and one that would heap misery disproportionately on everyday Americans and Iraqis.

Our flag and national anthem represent freedom, and that freedom includes the right to protest. Period. All too often in this country, the people who give the least, and skip the personal sacrifice, are the ones who heap scorn on those who bear the brunt of the suffering and hardships that result from bad policies and decisions.

I would say to President Donald Trump, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and any of the rest of the self-righteous folks who are criticizing NFL players for taking a knee during the national anthem that unless they served in the U.S. military, they have no right to judge what is or isn’t disrespectful toward our military, the flag, or anything else for that matter. (And a cheesy Chinese-made Stars and Stripes lapel pin doesn’t fool those of us who did serve.)