In its briefest, the word “patriotism” is defined as ”love of country and willingness to sacrifice for it.”
I know a lot of patriotic people, and I’m proud to be one. I speak with true patriots every day, and hear their heartaches and regrets.
As a Vietnam veteran advocate, I am always “at the ready” to talk with a veteran lapsing into the void of hopelessness, fear of death and brokenness. I spend hours listening to their pain-riddled words as long as they need me to, and offer what encouragement I can. These men—these veterans—are patriots. Understandably, I was stunned when I was harshly ridiculed by one of my veterans after posting a photo on Flag Day showing a beautifully groomed horse, head turned back to its shoulder and muzzle touching an American flag draped gracefully over its back. The photo was meaningful to me, and elegantly done. I couldn’t fathom what the issue was.
My veteran, Tom, is a Vietnam veteran. He suffers from PTSD, TBI and a list of physical battle wounds. He is decorated for heroism, as are most of the veterans that I deal with on a regular basis. I have been Tom’s battle buddy through a myriad of difficult times. Yet he was angry and insulted, reprimanding that I had dishonored the American flag.
“How could you do something like that?” he questioned me, sounding as if he were almost in tears.
What? Me dishonor the American flag? I was hurt and baffled how he could feel that way. He knew of my respect for the flag and all it represents. He should know that I would never do anything that would come within a breath of disrespect!
I took into consideration that he lived in a small town back east, and had never experienced country life as it is in Wyoming. He apparently was unaware of the patriotic pride that surges through every American cowboy. And was he even aware that Wyoming is ranked third and fourth in the nation’s most patriotic states?
I contemplated the flag draped across the powerful back of the horse, and thought of the unfathomable number of horses that carried American soldiers through battlefields at home and on foreign soil. They served right alongside our soldiers, carrying ammunition, food, water, medical supplies and the bodies of bleeding heroes. They served with the same honor, bravery and loyalty as the warriors they fought beside.
They carried the banners: the flags—headlong into battle even as they smelled death, blood and fear. Millions (yes, millions) of horses and mules died on those bloodstained battlefields across the world.
Today, horses still carry those banners. At every rodeo and stock show in the state of Wyoming, spectators and competitors stand and place hands over hearts, listening to the resonant strains of the National Anthem as horses enter the arena under sunlight or spotlight and “run the colors”—the flags. To those of us who truly love our country, our state and our heritage, we wipe a tear from our eyes, stand straighter and feel our heart beat a little faster with pride and reverence.
The horse itself stands as a symbol of freedom, pride, strength and incredible beauty, just like the American flag. Manes and tails fly freely under the blue skies unfettered, unrestricted, a symbol of our state and its fierce independence, wide open spaces and the resilience of its residents.
Only those who have been given the honor of running the colors at an event would understand the enormous pride and humility that courses through your veins when you enter that arena on your horse with the flag streaming majestically overhead. You look into the grandstands at hundreds or even thousands, standing with hat or hand over heart to the soul-stirring melody followed by thunderous clapping and cheering as you exit the arena. It’s then you realize that you hadn’t even taken a breath because it’s so overwhelmingly incredible sensing the love of God and pride of this country cascading down from those grandstands!
So Tom, my friend, I say this to you: What better way is there than to honor our flag, our military, our veterans and our country than to carry the American flag on our most noble and trusted counterparts, who have served alongside our warriors for decades? Both are representative of dignity and greatness, liberty and freedom, strength and resilience, honor and distinction.
That’s Wyoming-style patriotism, and that’s the cowboy way.