Patriotism as a Verb

Patriotism in America is often loud. And bombastic. There is a certain kind of patriotism that is demonstrated by having a giant flag flying from the back of your pickup truck. By equating a Christian god and country in all things “American.” By loudly proclaiming your fandom of a political leader or party.

This has never been my form of patriotism.

My patriotism is quieter. More personal. My patriotism sees the difficult history of our country but also a future path for all Americans. My patriotism is demonstrated in the work I’ve done over the last decade behalf of our diplomats and their families, people who serve our country overseas, working to create a more just and democratic world. And in the work I did the decade before that as a middle school English teacher, fostering the next generation of civic leaders and decision makers. And in the two years I spent as a Peace Corps Volunteer in rural China, creating individual connections on a grassroots level.

My patriotism is not a display, but an action.

I’ve never discounted my patriotism, but I also don’t use it as a defining character trait. It’s just not something I spent a lot of time considering. Not until I moved to a military base in rural Midwest America that is.

Settling in for three months of service alongside Department of Defense and Homeland Security colleagues, I found a patriotism that I hadn’t recognized in myself before.

In the earliest days of Operation Allies Welcome, as I watched Afghan guests step off of buses into our reception center, having endured days of difficult travel, proceeded by herculean efforts to even make it onto evacuation aircraft, the desire to help these people who had been our allies for twenty years was overwhelming. The feeling of debt to the Afghans who worked at Embassy Kabul in support of our diplomatic mission, to those who served as interpreters for our troops, to those who provided protection to our American colleagues across Afghanistan, and to those who supported our forward operating bases as cafeteria workers, cleaners, and drivers, sat heavily on my heart. Some of these newly arrived guests were fluent in English, earned higher degrees from a variety of western institutions, and lead NGOs, held political office, and headed international schools. Others had little to no formal education, were preliterate in their own language, and had minimal travel experience within Afghanistan, let alone internationally. For many, loading onto a military transport plane was the first time they had ever taken a flight.

As days went by and Operation Allies Welcome evolved from the crisis of standing up a small town nearly overnight and the literal welcoming of guests to Fort McCoy to a more steady state of supporting the needs of the refugees as they work through the resettlement process, the feeling of being called to this work didn’t diminish. Some afternoons I sat alongside Afghan women leaders who wanted to talk about how many days it had been since the Taliban had allowed young girls to go to school and about how they could get access to the internet needed to continue their work in support of vulnerable Afghans at home. Other days I participated in conversations with groups of college-aged young women who were getting ready to continue their educations as universities across the United States. We talked about what college in the U.S. is like, but also about their obligations to support their fellow young women. Most of these young ladies opted to not wear headscarves, but some still did. We talked about choice and how in the United States, both of those options are valid and highly personal. I told them about how I too was raised in an extremely conservative and controlling religion and how I cried the first time I went in public in a tank top, not because it wasn’t what I wanted, but because decades of having someone else dictate how I presented my body to the world was hard to just push aside. We had open and vulnerable conversations about what it means to be a woman, to have choices, to give consent, to dream big dreams and to support each other in those ambitions.

Week turned to months. Weekend after weekend passed without a day off. And yet, I had no desire to be anywhere else. Fort McCoy was the best way I knew how to show appreciation to these people who were decades-long allies of the United States. But it was also how I knew to show gratitude to my fellow Department of State colleagues- all those who had served at mission. They had personal connections to the people, the culture, and the country and by supporting OAW, I supported them.

I own exactly one piece of clothing with an American flag on it (a jacket, that I overpaid immensely for at the Fort McCoy PX, but would have paid double that because I was freezing one afternoon!).  I don’t play Lee Greenwood on loop on Independence Day. And I am always willing to have a frank conversation about where our country can and should do better. Patriotism isn’t about stars and stripes on your shirt. It isn’t about how loudly you can proclaim your loyalty to a leader who has created a cult of personality. It’s welcoming new refugees into your community and into your kids’ school. It’s learning about your neighbors and their culture and traditions. It’s about making tomorrow better than today.

Patriotism may grammatically be a noun.

But in practice, it’s a verb.

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