Young Mark watched the American flag climb the flag pole. He was eight years old and a cub scout. Mimicking his troop leader, Mark held his cap over his heart, as he sang the “Star Spangled Banner” with the rest of his troop.
Even at his young age, Mark understood the meaning of the flag. His father told him stories about his grandfather who flew a fighter plane in the Vietnam War. On his fifteenth mission, he was shot down, but managed to eject seconds before the plane crashed into the jungle. On landing, his chute tangled in the branches above, leaving his grandfather hanging helpless above the jungle floor. North Vietnamese soldiers on patrol captured him. A year later, he died in an enemy prison camp from malnutrition and disease. Mark’s father wanted his young son to remember the sacrifice their family paid for their freedom.
Mark stared up at the flag, which had reached the top of the pole, and now fluttered in the breeze. For the first time, Mark began to understand what his father was trying to teach him.
Mark became a scout at the age of ten. He held his cap over his heart, no longer mimicking his leader. The cap was held there because his heart was part of the flag and the country it represented. He’d recently read the story about Francis Scott Key, a Washington lawyer who went to Baltimore to negotiate the release of American prisoners of war from the British. During a night on a British ship, he witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry. The bombing continued through the night. In the morning, a flag sewn by Mary Pickersgill was raised above the fort. It was the signal that the fight would go on.
Key was so moved, he wrote the poem that would become “The Star Spangled Banner.” The pride he felt for the flag high above him and the country it represented—his country—overwhelmed him. His head bowed to hide a tear trickling down his cheek.
Years passed. Mark finished university and became a paramedic. He married and was an expectant father on the day the planes flew into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan.
That evening, Mark and his wife watched reruns of the attacks. They saw people leaping to their deaths and then the collapse of the towers. On the screen, people ran through the streets covered in the deadly dust that shrouded lower Manhattan.
“Shelly?” His wife turned to him. Tears stained her cheeks. “Shelly!” he repeated.
“If I was a paramedic in Manhattan, I would have been in or near those towers. I’d be dead now. All those men and women … ” A tear rolled down his cheek. She reached out and brushed it away. “Shelly, I’m going to join the army.”
“Mark, you can’t! What about our baby?”
“It’s because of the baby, Shell. We can’t let people attack our country and take our freedom.” He paused and pulled Shelly into his arms. ”Freedom is what this country is built on. It’s what our flag stands for.”
“But, Mark. What can you do for the army? You’ve never fired a gun in your life.”
“I could be a field medic.”
“I don’t want you to go, Mark, but I understand your reasons and will support you.”
The next day, Mark stood in line at the recruiting center with other men and women who heard the call and wanted to protect their country. Four months later he was sent for basic training. When complete, he had a few weeks to spend with his wife, who by now, was very pregnant
“Mark, you look great in your uniform.”
Mark held his arms out from his sides and spun in a circle. “You like?”
“Oh yes!” Shelly said with a twinkle in her eye. “You’ve lost weight. And look at look at your arms. They really got you in shape at camp!” She reached out and hugged him – their unborn child between them. “I’ve never been with a knight in shining armor before.” she whispered into his ear.
“This is your lucky day!” Mark laughed and held her tight. “Come with me my little damsel.” He led her to their room.
Mark reported to base with Shelly at his side. She wanted to be with him to say goodbye. Mark was having second thoughts about leaving his wife and soon to be child. As they pulled onto the base, Marked looked up and saw the “Stars and Stripes” flying over the main entrance. His resolve dissipated. In his heart, he knew he was doing the right thing for his country and his family – helping it and them be safe and free.
“Shell, I’ll be back as soon as my tour of duty is over.
Shelly couldn’t reply. Sunlight reflected off the tears that covered her cheeks. She stared at her handsome husband, the man who would soon be the father of their first child.
“Shell?” Mark stepped toward her. “It’s going to be OK!” He held her and felt the shaking as her sobs took control of her body. “I love you.” he whispered.
Shelly pulled back, wiped the tears from her cheeks with the palms of her hands, and finally spoke. “Oh, Mark! I’m going to worry so much. Please be careful and come home to me.”
“A wild team of horses couldn’t keep me from my girl.” He held both her hands in his. “Your mom will be there during labor. You’re in good hands. Now you know who to contact when the baby’s born?”
“Mark! How could I forget? You remind me every day. I’ll call the Chaplin on the base. He will get word to your commander.” She smiled for the first time that day.
“I know! I’m sorry! I just want to know as soon as possible.” He looked at his watch. “I’d better go, Shell.”
“Be careful, Mark, email or call when you can.”
Mark gave her a final hug and kiss. “You know I will.” He turned and marched toward the gate. When he reached it, he looked up at the flag and gave it a smart salute, then turned to his wife and waved goodbye.
To be continued …