As an enlisted man in the U.S. Air Force many years ago, I became accustomed to rendering a hand salute any time our country’s flag was raised, lowered or passed by, as well as when the national anthem was played.

I well remember stopping in my tracks, facing the music or the flag and saluting while on temporary duty at an Army post in Indiana when retreat was played over the public address system. I would have done the same on any military base, but I specifically recall the bugle call as I walked from class each evening at Fort Benjamin Harrison.

As with most servicemen, military protocol became second-nature — so much so that returning to the civilian gesture of my right hand over my heart during flag ceremonies felt awkward. I wanted to stand at attention, lift my hand to my right brow and salute just as I had while in uniform.

Until a decade ago, though, that would not have been proper protocol for a civilian.

However, new provisions in federal law in 2008 and 2009 changed that. With respect to the U.S. flag and national anthem, military veterans may conduct themselves just as if they were still in uniform.

I first learned of the new provisions from a fellow veteran at a parade a few years ago, but only recently decided to check it out for myself. I never doubted what I was told, but the newsman in me insisted I verify.

It didn’t take much research. I cite a Department of Defense news release from 2009:  

“Veterans and active-duty military not in uniform can now render the military-style hand salute during the playing of the national anthem, thanks to changes in federal law that took effect this month.

“‘The military salute is a unique gesture of respect that marks those who have served in our nation’s armed forces,’ said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Dr. James B. Peake. ‘This provision allows the application of that honor in all events involving our nation’s flag.’”

“The new provision improves upon a little known change in federal law [the National Defense Authorization Act of 2008] that authorized veterans to render the military-style hand salute during the raising, lowering or passing of the flag, but it did not address salutes during the national anthem …. The most recent change, authorizing hand salutes during the national anthem by veterans and out-of-uniform military personnel, was sponsored by Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, an Army veteran. It was included in the Defense Authorization Act of 2009.”

I don’t know if many other veterans are inclined to render military-style hand salutes, but I suspect I am not alone in thinking we should.

This Memorial Day we will likely have several opportunities to honor flag and country. Though our uniforms may today be ill-fitting and musty in our closets, it seems most fitting that we should salute as men and women still in service to our country — not to draw attention to ourselves, but out of respect for fellow veterans who sacrificed their lives to preserve our freedom.

It’s not simply a right, but a sacred duty.

Copyright 2019, James E. Hamilton.

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