Team RWB is an organization that uses exercise and social interaction to help veterans reintegrate into civilian life. I've been a volunteer with this group for the past several years, and during that time I've devoted most Saturday mornings to biking, hiking or running with veterans. (I'm the chunky old one in the picture. Don't tell anyone, but being with Team RWB allows this fat old lady to hang out with some incredibly fit and beautiful young people, so it's of immense benefit to me.)
Yesterday, as we do many Saturdays, we were running along the bosque trail. And, as usual, we were wearing our red shirts and carrying Old Glory. Many people we pass salute, or call out some encouragement. But yesterday, one woman passed us and offered us a single-finger salute. Half an hour or so later she passed us going the other direction and her companion cursed us. It was very upsetting to all of us, especially the corpsman who really wanted to hunt these two women down and have a little talk with them. Disrespecting us is one thing. Disrespecting the flag he's fought for is quite another.
I am pretty sure the two women were not US citizens. Because of its altitude, dry air and temperate climate, Albuquerque is a hub for the international running community. I encounter the Japanese women's marathon team almost every time I do an early morning run up on Tramway Boulevard. I frequently get passed by Kenyans up on the foothills trails. These two women were definitely elite runners: long and lean and very, very fast. They were dark skinned, but didn't look Kenyan. I am guessing they were from Northern Africa somewhere. I am also guessing that, while they are willing to come to America to train, their perception of the U.S. and its military is less than positive, and I am sad about that.
It saddens me to think that Americans are thought of as bullies or greedy imperialists. Even here in America, some people argue that the United States engages in war for purely selfish reasons. We've all heard it: ideas like the only reason the U.S. went into Iraq was to keep the price of oil low, or that we are intent on forcing the world into our own mold and we will use as much force as necessary to attain that goal. And while I won't deny that our government makes policies in our own best interest, (what country doesn't?) I do think such accusations ignore the immense amount of money and effort America expends to alieviate suffering and hardship in the world. As in Haiti and the Philippines, we are often among the first into areas devastated by natural disaster. We are by nature a generous people, and we don't like to see people hurting.
SPOILER ALERT! IF YOU HAVEN'T READ CODE: ELEPHANTS ON THE MOON YET YOU MIGHT WANT TO STOP HERE TO AVOID LEARNING SOMETHING CRUCIAL TO THE PLOT.
But not all disasters are natural in nature, and Americans have been known to want to help out in political and human-caused disasters as well. When the United States was slow to enter into the fight against Hitler in World War II, my favorite High School teacher went to Canada and joined the Royal Canadian Army. He was one of the inspirations for the fictitious Seamus Maloney who, like many real Americans, did the same in World War I, and then again in the Spanish Civil War. (He was also the person who gave me a copy of T.S. Elliot's The Waste Land and encouraged me to keep writing.) None of the American servicemen or women I've spoken to who were in Iraq say they went there to protect their gasoline tank. Many tell me they went because Saddam Hussein was mistreating the minorities within his borders or, since Hussein's demise, to protect one Iraqi group from another.
There are many who would argue with me, but I continue to believe that the American spirit is one of generosity and goodness. We despise bullies and human suffering and will do everything within our power to suppress the one and alleviate the other. And if that means we must enter the fight, we will do so, not because of what we will get out of it ourselves, but because we believe it is the right thing to do.
And so, in spite of middle finger salutes, I will continue to run with service members and with Old Glory. And I will run proud.