Metro

Military veterans are divided over NFL protests

DETROIT, MI - SEPTEMBER 24: Members of the Detroit Lions take a knee during the playing of the national anthem prior to the start of the game against the Atlanta Falcons at Ford Field on September 24, 2017 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)
Rey Del Rio/Getty Images
Members of the Lions before their game against the Falcons in Detroit.

To many military veterans, kneeling in protest during the national anthem is disrespectful of the American flag and what it represents. To others, it’s a constitutional right that represents the very freedom of speech they fought to protect.

But in a country beset by division, the decision of more than 200 National Football League players to take a knee, sit, or raise their fists during the national anthem Sunday served as an emotional reminder of just how polarized the nation has become.

“It brought me to tears,” said Brian Sullivan of Plymouth, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who watched with regret as more than a dozen New England Patriots knelt during the anthem at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough. “There’s enough divisiveness in our country. Don’t bring it to sports.”

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But for other veterans and those who work with them, the silent protest vividly displayed the democratic rights that generations of Americans have defended on the battlefield. Many players who did not kneel locked arms in a show of solidarity.

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“The majority of our veterans here have no problem with people kneeling down for the anthem. They think there’s just as much respect in that,” said Jack Downing, president of Soldier On, a nonprofit organization based in Northampton that aids homeless veterans. “Unfortunately, we have some political leadership in this country that wants to divide us by race, by belief, by geography, whatever works to their benefit.”

The protests have become the latest skirmish in an argument over what patriotism means in a country where the right to peaceful dissent is enshrined in the Constitution. Where some people see free expression, others see a rebuff to traditional values.

The protest sprouted last year when Colin Kaepernick, then a San Francisco 49ers quarterback, began kneeling during the anthem to protest what he believed was disproportionate — and often deadly — use of police force against blacks and other minorities.

A few NFL players continued to kneel as this season opened, but that scattered protest grew exponentially after President Trump on Friday called for team owners to fire any player who did not stand for the anthem.

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‘‘Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, you’d say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired.’ ” Trump said.

Coleman Nee, a Marine Corps veteran who served as Massachusetts secretary of veterans’ services from 2011 to 2015, said the uproar over the demonstrations is obscuring the underlying debate.

“I don’t think it’s a very effective protest in that you end up spending more time talking about the action itself than focusing on the issues that the players are talking about,” Nee said.

No matter one’s reaction, Nee said, kneeling during the anthem is protected expression.

“When you sign up to serve your country, you take an oath to support and defend the Constitution,” Nee said. “When people exercise their constitutional rights, controversial or unpopular as they may be, you have to take some comfort in the fact that people are able to do it. Mission accomplished.”

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Downing, the president of Soldier On, said many of the veterans there who opposed the protest had served in Vietnam.

“We have a few guys who are hard-nosed, and they don’t like it,” Downing said. “The people who served in Vietnam, a lot of them came back and nobody said thank you. They weren’t accepted, and they see this as another form of rejection.”

The veterans at Soldier On objected most to the decision of three teams that — rather than choose to kneel or stand — did not take the field for the anthem. However, one player from those teams, Afghanistan veteran Alejandro Villanueva of the Pittsburgh Steelers, stood alone during the ritual.

“Our guys were frustrated,” Downing said. “Kneel, stand, do whatever you want, but do it respectfully.”

For a longtime veteran such as Sullivan, a 71-year-old who served in the Vietnam War, the protests were painful to watch.

“Bottom line is that, even though their grievance has merit, there has got to be a better way to address it than kneeling during our national anthem,” Sullivan said. “Perception is reality, whether it be the perceived disrespect to our flag and national anthem, or the perception that improvements need to be made in community policing of our minority neighborhoods.

“Both deserve rational, respectful conversation and dialogue versus highly charged theatrics.”

Sullivan said his eyes welled up Sunday as he discussed the protest with his wife over dinner. He had watched the Patriots game and listened closely to team captain Devin McCourty explain afterward why he had taken a knee.

“I’m doing my level-best to understand where people like Devin McCourty, whom I respect, are coming from,” Sullivan said.

“We’re so damned divided right now as a country. We’re so polarized, and a house divided against itself may fall,” Sullivan added. “More than being mad at the protesters who knelt, I was sad, I was hurt. We need to come together.”

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.