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Why some in the US military support Colin Kaepernick (+video)

Understanding each other

Colin Kaepernick's kneel-down protest during the national anthem has spread, as has the backlash. But for some members of the military, it's an expression of the very patriotism they signed up to protect. 

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    San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid (35) and quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) kneel during the national anthem before a National Football League football game against the Los Angeles Rams in Santa Clara, Calif., Monday.
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The Colin Kaepernick protest is not going away. If anything, it is growing – and so is the backlash.

Some students are being threatened with suspension if they take a knee during the national anthem to protest the treatment of black Americans by police. A youth team in Texas kneeled for the anthem – and received death threats, according to reports. And several football fans have burned the jerseys of their favorite pro football players after the players refused to stand during the anthem.

But Justin McFarlin comes at it from a different perspective.

As an Army veteran who served in Iraq in 2008, he doesn’t need Mr. Kaepernick or any other protesters to stand up during the national anthem.

Instead, he wants the country to address the issue Kaepernick is raising – not just for the good of the United States, but for its soldiers deployed abroad.

“When I served in Iraq, sectarian violence was a huge issue,” he says. “If the perception emerges that at home we’re not treating our own minorities well, then that diminishes our own credibility abroad.”

Mr. McFarlin’s viewpoint certainly doesn’t reflect the opinions of many in the military or the US. A Reuters poll found that 72 percent of Americans call Kaepernick’s protest “unpatriotic,” though 64 percent say he has a constitutional right to do it. 

But a vocal contingent of military veterans is pushing back, saying that not only is it Kaepernick’s right to protest, it is actually a patriotic act worth defending.

“Part of loving America is being able to say, ‘Look, we’ve got some issues, and I think we need to change some things.’ To be brave enough to be willing to stand up on a rooftop and shout it – that’s just as patriotic as painting your truck red, white, and blue,” says Matt Pelak, a 19-year Army veteran and a paratrooper.

“As veterans, we need to be more vocal about this. I support his ability to express himself, and this is what we fought for," he adds. "It doesn’t offend me. He’s upset, he’s doing it for a valid reason, and I think he’s done a pretty good job of explaining it.”

Kaepernick has said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” He added, “To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.”

Many veterans bristle at the protest.

“While no one should be compelled to stand, they should recognize that by sitting in protest to the flag they are disrespecting everyone who sacrificed to make this country what it is today – as imperfect as it might be,” wrote retired Adm. Bill McRaven, former head of Joint Special Operations Command, which is responsible for the sorts of secret operations run by the Navy SEALs, including the raid to kill Osama bin Laden.

Admiral McRaven, now serving as the chancellor of the University of Texas system, asked university presidents and athletic directors to “encourage your coaching staff and your players to stand up straight” for the anthem and, specifically, to “face the flag and place their hand over their heart as a sign of respect to the nation.”

Members of Woodrow Wilson High kneel during the national anthem before a game in Camden, N.J., last Saturday. Yong Kim/The Philadelphia Inquirer/AP

But McFarlin says he admires that Kaepernick has “put himself out there.”

“If you really love your country, then that’s what you do: Make people think about those conversations and maybe push them out of their comfort zone.”

Protecting free speech is one of the reasons he served, McFarlin says. So he would like to see the conversation centered more around the issues that Kaepernick is trying to raise.

“The conversation around whether we’re ‘supporting the troops’ hijacks the real issues being raised,” he says. “There needs to be a conversation around what the issues are, and what policies are being proposed to fix it.”

Mr. Pelak, who served in Iraq and also worked in US as a paramedic for 15 years, says he recognizes that police “have to make split-second decisions about what to do when they interact with people who may or may not want to hurt them,” and that the problem is complex.

But the veteran population is complex, too, and doesn’t all line up on one side.

Many people “think they know veterans, but we're less than 1 percent of the population, so a lot of people really don’t. They know stereotypes they see from TV – meat-eating, flag-wavers – but we’re a diverse group of individuals who all have our opinions and serve for many different reasons,” Pelak adds. “And that's what makes our military incredibly strong.”  

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