The collective head of the internet nearly exploded recently, when NFL Quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the National Anthem. This act of peaceful protest calling attention to racial injustice in the United States was met with a venomous response across social media. Even The Blaze’s Tomi Lahren slithered from her cave lair to deliver an angry ‘Final Thoughts’ rant. One of the most troubling responses however, came in the form a viral meme touting the image of a wounded soldier. It is yet another example of disabled veterans being used as political pawns and inspirational commodities. Strangely, for a nation obsessed with perceived patriotism and military service, we seem to have no problem exploiting our former service members.
First of all, it’s important to understand the reason why the San Francisco 49ers player sat out the Star Spangled Banner. In his statement to the press, Colin Kaepernick had this to say: “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 is understandably upset, considering America’s documented problems of institutional racism. Despite the realities of police brutality, mass-incarceration and poverty among black individuals, some were still deeply offended by Kaepernick’s protest. Somehow his constitutional right to criticize our country was perceived as an insult towards the U.S. military.
To me, the biggest disrespect to our troops in this situation has actually been carried out by so-called patriots (and no, not Tom Brady). One of the more viral responses to come from the right leaning end of the internet featured the image of former Marine Zach Stinson, a double leg amputee wounded in Afghanistan. Sergeant Stinson is shown in his blue dress uniform holding himself up from his wheelchair by his arms during the National Anthem. Regardless of his military service, this is still a rather blatant example of inspiration porn. Not only is it using a picture of someone without legs to make quip about standing but also denies Sgt. Stinson a voice. We truly have no idea how he feels about Kaepernick or anything for that matter, he is just used a patriotic object. Instead of feeling outraged over a football player peacefully sitting down in the name of black Americans, maybe we should care a bit more for the veterans we use as memes.
Those who are so quick to cite the troops in their faux-patriotism would be wise to understand the true struggles of those they “support.” As a country, we are failing our veterans who have been wounded in both ways we can see and ways we cannot. Many disabled vets face poverty, homelessness and unemployment. Injured soldiers must deal with an overstrained and underfunded VA hospital system. Some must navigate astronomically long wait times for essential surgery, mobility aids and counseling. Right now in the U.S. an average of 22 veterans commit suicide per day. Our soldiers are not walking or rolling sacrifices at the altar of Uncle Sam, they are thinking, feeling human beings.
I certainly cannot speak for how all veterans feel and that’s exactly the point. They are are an extremely diverse group of individuals with their own opinions, like the trending #VeteransForKaepernick. The problems of racism, ableism and institutional failure are deeply intertwined and all worthy of our attention. Patriotism is about more than just a flag or song, it’s about supporting our fellow humans. It is time we to start caring about the people who actually live in America more than America as a construct. I believe we should support who we send to war and not war itself. As a nation we need to declare with our words and actions that black lives really do matter!