Several months ago, Carl Huffman received a very special gift from his son.
It was an American flag, packed in a clear glass case.
“I got it on Christmas Eve,” Huffman, 64, Anderson, said. “Everyone wanted to look at it, touch it.”
It had flown in Iraq, where Carl’s son, Sgt. 1st Class Michael Huffman, 34, was then serving with the 138th Signal Battalion of the National Guard, based in Anderson.
Huffman’s platoon of 60 soldiers sent 120 flags home to their families and friends.
“It makes your family feel a part of a group,” said Michael, who returned home Saturday. “It gives them a good feeling.”
The American flag is always a powerful symbol of unity, patriotism and national pride, especially in a time of war. In a controversial war, as the one in Iraq has become, it also becomes a symbol of the freedom to speak one’s mind — sometimes in extreme ways.
“The flag is the symbol of our democracy. It’s probably one of the most potent symbols in our culture,” said Warren Watson, director J-IDEAS, a project at Ball State University that supports scholastic journalism and First Amendment awareness.
For Watson, the flag is a symbol of freedom of speech, and specifically the right to disagree with the government’s actions.
That right has been central to the country’s development, he said. Civil disobedience, from the Boston Tea party to flag burning during the Vietnam conflict, has helped shape American history, he added.
“(Flag burning) is a symbol of political protest, our ability to protest what we think is wrong. It’s a form of petition — this is wrong and we want you to reconsider,” he said.
Flag burning is an extreme way to capture attention — ”I don’t think I would do it,” he said —but also an important part of First Amendment rights.
Vietnam veteran Larry Wiesenauer, a 62-year-old Anderson resident, remembered watching the rioting during the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention on television.
“Freedom is a double-edged sword,” he said. “I think (flag burners) are degrading their own values.”
The protests against the Iraq war, he said he’s noticed, have involved fewer young people — perhaps because young people today aren’t subject to a draft.
“I think the people who disagree with Iraq is a broader segment,” he said.
While the flag can be a symbol of protest for some, it is a symbol of hope and unity for others, especially for military families.
Michael Huffman’s mother, Cheryl Engelhardt, decorated her porch with two big flag banners and flew a third flag in her yard while her son was gone.
“People tell you ‘Thank You,’” Engelhardt said. “They say they’ll pray for you.”
Her son’s wife Tracy, meanwhile, showed her patriotism by helping make T-shirts, often decorated with the flag.
“Some said, ‘Half of my heart is in Iraq,’” Tracy, 31, said.
The flag is also draped over caskets as a symbol of respect for fallen soldiers — a sight Michael can relate to all too well.
“I feel sad for the loss of life,” he said. “But I also feel proud. They died the way I would want to die.”