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Patriots honor military with flying colors

Fans hold cards that spell out, "Thank you troops," which was paid for by the Kraft family.Steven Senne/Associated Press

FOXBOROUGH — Capping a week filled with poor optics regarding the military's relationship with pro sports teams, Sunday's Patriots-Redskins game at Gillette Stadium came with perhaps the grandest gestures of the season honoring military personnel — and none of it was sponsored.

The team's annual "Salute to Service" game — a league-wide endeavor to commemorate Veteran's Day on Wednesday — featured various ceremonies during all 11 games Sunday and made for a busy first half.

Sunday's activities, which honored members of all five branches of the military, were separate from the team's contract with the Massachusetts National Guard, which drew attention this past week after a report from Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona called out professional sports leagues for so-called "paid patriotism."

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On the surface, it looked bad: The Patriots received $700,000 over the course of three years from the state National Guard. Patriots president Jonathan Kraft shed a little light on the issue Sunday, saying it isn't nearly as sketchy as it has been made out to be.

"I understand the public's ire with it. If I didn't have knowledge of the back story, I would have the same feelings," Kraft said during his regular pregame appearance on 98.5 The Sports Hub.

Kraft explained that the Patriots have honored military personnel at games since his family bought the team in 1994. The team also has a deal with the National Guard for various marketing purposes — TV and radio, in-stadium signage, etc. Once that relationship was established, the Guard approached the team with an idea.

"They said to us, 'Hey, could we start to make that person a Mass. National Guardsman or woman and focus on Massachusetts roots?' " Kraft said. "We said sure, because we thought it would allow us to get people who really deserved it, who were local.

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"And we didn't charge any more money for it. We just added it to what we were doing with them. I think even in the senators' report, it shows over the number of years the money was constant."

Previously, the Patriots picked the honored servicemen and women, who had varying military backgrounds, according to a team spokesman.

Regardless of the Patriots' and Guard's future advertising relationship, Kraft said, certain traditions will continue.

"The one thing I'm 100 percent sure of is as long as our family owns the team, we will be honoring military men and women at the game," Kraft said.

Sunday's ceremonies were visually impressive. During the national anthem, about 300 active and retired military personnel unfurled a gigantic American flag. Throughout the first half, several veterans were honored on the field during stoppages in play, including Patriots offensive lineman Cameron Fleming's mother, Karen, a 25-year Army veteran. Between the first and second quarters a red, white, and blue card stunt in the stands spelled out "Thank you troops" as "God Bless America" played in the background.

The organization came up with that idea after a similar stunt — celebrating the team's Super Bowl championships during the season opener against Pittsburgh — went over well.

The team paid for the flag rental and cards.

"It's just a tiny, tiny token of our appreciation for what [military personnel do]," Kraft said.

"We've never charged anybody to sing the national anthem, to be the honored guard, to do anything like that. And never, ever will."

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