With Fresh Eyes: Patriotism on Two Fronts

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Rich Nelson’s father Woodrow F. Nelson


by Rich Nelson

My father nearly died in the jungles of 1944 New Guinea.  During WWII, he was stationed with the U.S. Army’s 1462nd Engineers Maintenance Company.  Their primary mission was ship maintenance, assembling and repairing landing craft.  Too many of these men, there in the tropical Pacific, died of the diseases indigenous to the region.  In an American cemetery on one of the nearby islands, 214 U.S. servicemen are buried; only seven of them were combat-related deaths.   


My dad Woodrow F. Nelson (1913-1993), contracted malaria, which, during his recovery, took the life of his best buddy.  He was forever weakened by this debilitating disease.  My dad’s fellow soldiers spent endless hours with him at his bedside in the infirmary.  After a lengthy convalescence, he re-joined his unit and, following the Japanese surrender in 1945, became part of the Occupation Army in Japan.  He returned home to Muskegon upon his discharge that December.  He spoke little of his wartime experience but went back to work and raised a family.  He was a member of the union striving for better conditions at his workplace, a local foundry, where the job, arduous and sordid, consisted of ever-changing shifts, playing havoc with his sleeping patterns and family plans.


My father sacrificed much throughout his life.  He helped make my life, and the opportunities it has brought, possible.  I am forever grateful.  He was a humble and true patriot.  He was part of the massive effort during those prolonged and trying war years which preserved this country’s ideals of opportunity, justice, and free expression. 


When these ideals have not been realized, especially for marginalized groups in this country, other true patriots have stepped forward.  We look back at a rich and profound history of protest and dissent which has propelled this country toward a more just place.  From the founding fathers to the suffragettes, from Birmingham to Standing Rock, from Cesar Chavez to Walter Reuther, from Stonewall to Parkland, Florida, our ideals remain vital because of the voices that challenge and confront us. It’s not always comfortable, and it’s often messy.  But it’s consequential – and essential.


The NFL players who have taken a knee during the National Anthem have been called disrespectful, unpatriotic.  This contentious debate has re-emerged, via divisive faulting by the President.  In a May 24th interview with FOX News, Trump chimed in to the recent NFL ruling that players must stand or stay in the locker room during the anthem, stating “You have to stand proudly for the national anthem.  If not, you shouldn’t be playing, you shouldn’t be there.  Maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.”  Kneeling silently is not a slight on our flag, our anthem, or my father’s service.  It is intended to shed light on Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and innumerable others.  It’s about Flint not having adequate drinking water.  It calls to our attention the issue of mass incarceration adversely impacting young African-American males.  It informs us that we can do better. 


Kneeling as a peaceful response falls in line with long-standing traditions of civil insurgency that have resulted in meaningful shifts in public policy and outlook.  Pride in our country takes many forms.  My father understood that.


Contact Rich at richmskgn@gmail.com