MEREDITH – For 30 years, veterans from the Lakes Region and beyond have gathered at the flagpole in Hesky Park to raise awareness of service members who became prisoners of war or missing in action. 

In three decades, the group has been asked lots of questions – including whether they’re protestors, said Bob Jones, 74, co-founder of what has become the nation’s longest running MIA-POW vigil.

On the eve of Veterans Day, Jones did not have to search for words when asked what patriotism means. “To me, it’s the flag and what it represents: Faith, trust, truth, responsibility and accountability. Patriotism is knowing we’re all in this together.”

“When I stand at the Vietnam Memorial” in Washington D.C., in front of the wall with 58,000 names of those who lost their lives, “They were black, white, Asian and gay. There were males and females. Their lives were taken from them, fighting for this country.  We were all brothers at the time. We were fighting together,” said Jones. Today he is president of the Northeast POW-MIA Network.

Jones served in the U.S. Navy from 1964-1968 as a hospital corpsman with the Marines in Vietnam, and lost most of his hearing when a landmine exploded, flinging him into a tree. He considers himself lucky, and also tasked with a survivor’s mission.

“That flag represents all of us,” he said. “The American people – we are one. That has to be taught at an early age. That’s patriotism, and we don’t have enough of it today. We’re from different political parties. But in the end, we’re all the same.” 

At a time when politics has become particularly contentious and people are divided into camps that seem intolerant of differing opinions and visions, patriotism means different things. And the definition is something veterans care deeply about passing down.

Although Veterans Day is mainly a day to honor and remember those who served, it’s also a time to reflect.  Patriotism, a love of this country and what it stands for, is the underlying reason why most veterans say they served. It’s a complex and heartfelt feeling and idea, and a bond that can bring us together in peace and in times of political and social unrest, and a set of values to nurture, local veterans agree.

“Patriotism means embracing American ideals of freedom and the Bill of Rights, including freedom of speech, things we don’t see in other countries, things we are born into here,” said Hillary Seeger, 59, of Meredith. Seeger served from 1979-87 in a civil engineering squadron in the Air Force, and is now a member and chaplain of the Laconia V.F.W. and Meredith American Legion.

Seeger remembers growing up during the Cold War, and learning about Russian dissidents who sought asylum in the U.S. “It terrified me that home could be something terrible that you had to escape,” Seeger said. “I didn’t understand how somebody could get into trouble for having a different idea. They could get in trouble if they had a Bible.” Seeger said she worries about colleges canceling talks by guest speakers because protesting students disagree with or are offended by their perspectives.

“Here we can say different things and we protect that right, whether we agree or not.  The core of patriotism is protecting the free speech of someone even when you disagree with them. We’re not doing that now and it’s terrifying,” Seeger said.

Seeger and others see, at this moment, a fragmented America rather than a patchwork quilt: “We’ve become so compartmentalized, especially because of social media. We share things that are fake that agree with our ideals, whether they’re true or not. We’re choosing only to associate with people who share our ideals, and we’re not taking in other opinions, which is fractionalizing our society even further. This is the same country, with the same diversity. The biggest difference is that we’ve all gone to our separate corners and developed a win-or-lose mentality, instead of having ideas that can mesh together.”

Kurt Webber, 63, of Gilford, a third-generation West Point graduate, spent most of his 23-year U.S. Army career teaching and developing leaders, and as a retired civilian, in the Boy Scouts. Six years ago, he co-founded Camp Resilience, a healing and bonding retreat for veterans and first responders, many of whom struggle with PTSD, based on completing outdoor activities and physical challenges together. 

He said patriotism in daily life means being a good citizen, voting, following the laws, and serving your community. “Patriotism doesn’t mean you have to serve in the military. It has nothing to do with your political views. Just being a responsible businessman or homemaker, you can be a patriot because you’re a good citizen, doing your part and volunteering.”

Underlying patriotism is also a code of ethics, instilled at West Point, which includes duty, respect, honor and integrity, Webber said. “As an army officer, your word is your bond. You are taught not to lie, cheat or steal, or tolerate those who do. And when you signed a report, it was expected to be true. I never wanted anyone to think I got a penny I didn’t deserve or wasn’t supposed to get.”

Don Bolduc, 57, a Laconia native, advanced from private and to brigadier general in the U.S. Army, and served for more than 33 years before retiring. Now he mentors college students, military service members, veterans, and business leaders through Skype sessions on leadership in a time a conflict.  Bolduc recently ran against Corky Messner in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate.

Patriotism today means dedication to service and sacrifice for the values and principles in the Declaration of Independence, Bolduc said, “including rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, ideals of self-determination and initiative, and a ‘Don’t tread on me’ attitude’ that’s part of the American work ethic.” It’s often embodied in veterans, he said.

“We believe in something bigger than ourselves, in sacrificing for the collective good. We learned that value system at home and in the community,” said Bolduc. “The way to give back is to serve.”

On Veterans’ Day, Bolduc thinks about his former troops, including Bill Brown, a sergeant who died Nov. 6, 2006 from an IED explosion while on his fourth rotation in Afghanistan. “He embodied patriotism by his service to his nation, and he was willing to go into harm’s way to defend freedom. He believed in something bigger than himself.”

How can average citizens be patriots?  “By respecting the flag, thanking a vet, and by dedicating yourself to becoming a productive member of society and putting others before yourself. If we could all do those things, we’d see a much better America, a much more unified America, and that should be our goal,” Bolduc said.

“Despite our faults, we are still the best country in the world. "What’s changed is the character and quality of our elected officials,” he added. “They’ve gone from being public servants to career politicians interested in their own self-service, and they are undermining principles this nation was founded on. I’m very concerned that we’re on the road to socialism. There’s not a veteran today that will say they signed on to serve socialism. Not one.”

“Patriotism is about serving your country because it’s providing a service for you,” said Mark Corey, 74, of Gilford, who served for six years in the U.S. Navy and naval reserves, including 18 months of active duty as a radio operator during the Vietnam War. “A patriot is someone who is willing to defend their country against all enemies, foreign or domestic,” he said. “You just have to be willing to defend your country and the Constitution.”

In the past, divisiveness mostly “was against someone other than fellow Americans,” Corey said. “There’s not a come-togetherness today like there was after 9-11.” He attributes that to culture and politics. “Biden said ‘We’re not red states or blue states, we’re the United States.’  Instead of working together,” politicians, including those in government “they’re working against each other, to push their political agenda.  It’s just too easy to disagree with somebody else and not try to find a middle ground.”

“Part of my patriotism now is giving back to those who serve now or served recently,” said Corey, who volunteers at Camp Resilience, after retiring from a lifelong career in information technology.

Patriotism “means having an appreciation for the country you were born into, and feeling an obligation to pay back something,” said Chris Ray, 74, of Gilford, a board member and treasurer for Camp Resilience.   After serving in the Marines for three years in Vietnam, Ray worked in insurance, living and setting up companies in Poland, Argentina and Brazil, where he gained an outsider’s appreciation for American freedoms and accomplishments through the comments of people who admired the U.S.

He said it’s become too easy to take this country for granted, including the ideal of volunteerism. “That’s not the way it is in other countries. Giving back to your community is very much an American ideal,” Ray said.

Roland Huse, 88, lives at the NH Veteran’s Home in Tilton. He served in the infantry in Germany after World War II, and later in Korea, and is frank about what patriotism is.  “Be willing to serve. It’s either that, or you’ll lose this country.  The only way it’s going downhill is because people aren’t concerned about it. I’d go again (to fight) for this country.  If I was able to now, I’d go.” 

Norman Sanborn, 92, recently moved to the NH Veterans Home in Tilton, and remains chairman of the veterans committee of the Rochester Elks Club – many decades after he served as a cook in the Merchant Marine, ferrying shiploads of U.S. soldiers home after they fought in World War II, including in the Battle of the Bulge.  He recently retired as commander of the American Legion in Rochester.

During Sanborn’s youth and much of his adult life, patriotism was “something everybody had. We were brought up with patriotism and the importance of duty. We were taught that in school – about the flag, Washington, Lincoln and the Civil War.  I couldn’t wait to get in to serve,” he said. “Patriotism was just part of our life. It was automatic. Everybody went in to do our part.”

For many years, Sanborn and other members of Rochester’s Elks Club and American Legion brought an American flag to public schools to explain its significance and proper handling, through the Americanism Project, he said.

“It was the symbol you grew up with,” which evoked a feeling of reverence. “Kids today don’t have that feeling” about the flag.  A lot of them asked, ‘Why can’t you let it drop on the ground?’ It’s part of the deal.  It’s respect,” Sanborn said.

Today patriotism also means stepping up to serve others, he said. “Just being out helping people, and being associated with service organizations. It’s important to get involved in your community, with Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, youth groups, church groups,” Sanborn said. “Both of my sons retired from fire departments. One retired as chief last year.”

•••

The Sunshine Project is underwritten by grants from the Endowment for Health, New Hampshire’s largest health foundation, and the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation.

Roberta Baker can be reached by email at Roberta@laconiadailysun.com

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