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Amy Donaldson: Carrying the flag for those who fought, for those who rebel and those who feel ignored

Before last month, the primary factor in my decision about whether to run with the U.S. flag in a race has been weather.

I know that sounds fickle, but if you’ve never tried carrying a flag while running, you don’t understand that even the mildest gusts can turn an already challenging task into a painful wrestling match with what feels like a unwieldy mast with the sail fully rolled out. Regardless, for the first time, as I prepared to run the Ragnar Relay in Hawaii last month, I found myself worrying about more than my physical ability to run with Old Glory.

For the first time I wondered, if I ran with the flag, would it offend somebody?

It was a concern that surprised me because I’ve never really thought about how my decision would be received by others. Until that race, all I ever considered was whom and what I honored when I carried it.

As more and more people chose to protest systemic racism by sitting or kneeling during the national anthem, I’ve struggled with my unfettered support of free expression and my own personal feelings about how to behave during the National Anthem.

And let me just say, it’s been quite a battle. In fact, I’ve felt a little like Smeagol arguing with Gollum (See “The Lord of the Rings”) because I share the protesters’ concerns about people and systems that are inherently unfair, about policies and practices that need to evolve and politics, and opinions that would benefit from better understanding and empathy. I do not, however, believe the way they’re protesting is bringing about the change they (and quite frankly, I) desire. And then, I scold myself, it is not my place to tell someone how to protest that which they feel oppresses or offends them.

Instead, I’ve tried to listen as open-mindedly as possible throughout this discussion without trying to dictate how those in pain express their frustration and anger. As I listened, I learned. One of the most heartbreaking realities I came to understand is that we live in different versions of America.

My experience, my country is not the America that some of my friends experience. In fact, while I choke up when the U.S. customs agents welcome me back to the U.S.A., some of my friends feel this country doesn’t just ignore them, it hates them. In understanding their reality, I have become more compassionate in the way they express the pain of feeling invisible or unwanted.

So while I’ve sometimes been disappointed and discouraged by the decisions made by those trusted to lead this country, I’ve never felt hopeless about its potential for evolution. I see this country’s flaws and I embrace it anyway because I believe so completely in its virtues.

So I called my friend and fellow Team Red, White and Blue member Jason Comstock and asked him if he’d mind bringing his flag to the race in Hawaii. As I prepared to run my first leg, I realized the wind was going to be vicious. Most of my six-ish miles were also going to be uphill, and just for added bonus, it was hot and humid.

As I was waiting for my daughter-in-law to run into the exchange where I would take off, a woman came up to me and thanked me for carrying the flag. When I asked if she was a Team RWB member, she said no. Her husband was a U.S. Marine currently serving overseas. We chatted for a couple of minutes about the fact that my dad was a Marine who served in Vietnam, and then I left to go run my leg. The hills were hard and the wind was strong and hot. But I felt buoyed, as I often do, by my decision to carry the flag.

I sang the Marine’s Hymn, and I thought of that woman and her husband. I thought of my dad and of nameless, faceless soldiers who’ve served with the kind of courage and conviction that I know very little about. While I’d been worried about whom I might offend, I hadn’t thought about those who needed to know they’re supported. It was a small moment, but one I was proud to have provided.

As I ran, I thought about what the flag means to me and why it’s never symbolizes our flawed and fallible leaders. While I often think about soldiers and their sacrifices when I carry the flag, Old Glory also represents the rebels. It represents those who pushed back against accepted practices or beliefs. It represents our constant, conflicted struggle to be our best selves as much as it represents those who willingly, selflessly serve in our military.

For me, the flag is all the best of us, the people who make this country diverse, creative and so determined. We aren’t perfect but we’re committed to ideals that, when we are mindful, make us better human beings.

I also understand, and accept, that isn’t what everyone sees or feels when they protest the anthem or the flag. And I respect that because of the protests more deeply than I would if we all just unquestioningly behaved in a way that was required. I feel that more authentically because their decision made me uncomfortable enough to ask how I can help find solutions.

The unique beauty of this country is that our patriotism has never been blind. Some try to use it as a weapon, but most of the time it’s been wrested back into the hands of sincerity by those with the courage to question whether we’re living up to the ideals that flag and that song are supposed to represent. And frankly, we would benefit if we asked ourselves those questions more often.

So as I ran, I felt a little more grateful for those who push back, those who ask questions and those who help us to continually redefine and refine ourselves. And as I headed up that last hill, I hummed the lines I learned as a child and dedicated those steps to the men and women who challenge us, teach us and, ultimately, make us better Americans.

I hoped my decision to embrace them and our flag would help them feel that they belong, that they are loved and even when they feel marginalized, they're a critical part of what makes this country great.