From the desk of John Hanson, Senior Vice President of Communications for the USO:

First of all, I love this country.  You’re waiting for a conjunction, aren’t you? Nope.  I just wanted that on the table.

U.S Soldiers with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment raise an American flag on a roof being used as a lookout point during Operation Helmand Spider in Badula Qulp, Helmand province, Afghanistan, Feb. 10, 2010. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Efren Lopez/Released)

Lately, I’ve been thinking about saluting the flag.  Last year, Congress made it acceptable for veterans and military members not in uniform to render the traditional hand salute (right hand to the right eyebrow) when the colors of the nation are formally presented.  I understand why that might be important to some people, but I have to wonder what’s wrong with the other traditional method of honoring the flag (right hand over heart).

First, please understand, honoring the flag is something far too few Americans do; and often when they do, it’s a clumsy exercise in what seems to be embarrassed under achievement.  You can almost see people asking, “Am I doing this right? How long do I do it? Is anyone watching me?”

But, I’ve also noticed that over the past few years, more and more people are making the effort to respect the flag, and even the clumsiest efforts will eventually become easy.  I take that as good news.  (Reading the very brief and easily understood U.S. Flag Code is also a good idea)

A few months ago, I was at an indoor event.  The Master of Ceremonies urged all veterans and military members out of uniform to render the traditional hand salute to honor the flag as the Color Guard made its way forward.  On the one hand (no puns here, really) it was quite a sight, seeing people in suits standing and saluting proudly.  I stood there, with my hand over my heart (I’m a veteran and proud of it) wondering:

–Are these folks all veterans?  How do we know?

–Aren’t we inside?  Do people salute inside these days?

–Shouldn’t there be some kind of headwear?

Okay, I didn’t wonder all that until the colors were presented, the National Anthem performed and the Color Guard left the room.

I’m not sure when this saluting as a civilian behavior started.  When I was a kid, I don’t remember seeing President Eisenhower salute the Marines at the White House or when he left Air Force One.  I remember his nodding and going about his business.  Maybe I’m wrong, but if HE could get away with not saluting, can’t other Presidents?  I could be over thinking this, but one of the great principles that makes the United States unique is that the military is under the ultimate control of a civilian leader – the President.  In many ways, that’s been a comfort.  The public’s requirement that a president salute makes me uncomfortable, somehow.  That’s not a partisan statement, it’s just a statement. I remember one of my ROTC instructors explaining the salute as a way to “Say Hello.”  Isn’t that what the wave of a hand does?

What’s also unique about this country is how many people will tell me I’m wrong, rather than simply telling me they disagree with me.  The quickest way to kill a conversation is to turn it off with one of those “right-wrong” or “right-left” exchanges.   So it goes.

Look, I don’t care if you want to salute.  What was seen as a tremendous hassle to those of us when we were in the lower enlisted ranks seems to be something else today.

So, go ahead.  Hold that salute for the Colors to come in and for the National Anthem.  Just don’t sing while you’re doing it.  That, it seems to me, is a real break in saluting protocol.

Me?  I’m proud to place my hand over my heart, like my Daddy taught me.

Operation Denali’s Marc Hoffmeister named “Adventurer of the Year”

From the desk of Jeremy Borden, USO Staff Writer:

Army Lieutenant Colonel Marc Hoffmeister says his whole experience with National Geographic has been one surprise after the other. But none was bigger than learning that he’d tied for first place as the organization’s Adventurer of the Year.

Hoffmeister, who was wounded in a roadside blast in Iraq in 2007, organized a group of wounded warriors to climb Mount McKinley, also known as Denali, the highest mountain peak in North America in June 2009.

Lieutenant Colonel Marc Hoffmeister summits Denali. DoD photo.

He said he was more than a little shocked to be named one of the magazine’s Adventurers of the Year. “I frankly was pretty surprised to even be ranked amongst them,” he said from his home in Eagle River, Alaska.

It also shocked him that readers honored him as their Readers’ Choice Adventurer of the Year on Thursday.

He credits his team — the accomplishment is a group one, he says — but can’t put his finger on what put his story above the rest. “I don’t know what singled us out at all,” he said.

Hoffmeister went up against accomplished adventurers, like the astronaut known as “the Hubble repairman,” and tied for first place in the readers’ choice contest with Albert Yu-Min Lin, who organized a treacherous expedition into Mongolia to search for the lost tomb of Genghis Khan.

As Hoffmeister and Lin pulled away from the pack in the competition’s last weeks, the soldier wondered what his chances were.

“It’s the modern age of technology. You ‘Google’ the competition,” Hoffmeister said.

When he found out about Lin’s University of California-San Diego connections, he joked he was worried that “[Lin’s] got the whole school at his disposal. Can’t you just [take students] to the computer lab every other day and vote?”

Despite what he considered steep odds, Hoffmeister organized and assembled his own social network. Army officials and even senators gravitated to his story, helping put the word out through e-mail chains, news stories and social media Web sites. Hoffmeister knew it was working when he started hearing from long lost friends.

But it was Hoffmeister’s story of four wounded warriors training for a year and spending a month summiting a treacherous peak that resonated around the country. When Hoffmeister was beginning his own recovery, he knew the mountain climb could change wounded warriors’ lives. But first, he had his own burdens to over come…Read the full blog post from “On the Frontlines” and see Army Lieutenant Colonel Marc Hoffmeister’s full story online at ON★PATROL, the magazine of the USO.