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An Old Glory Story

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Jason Bowns
September 1, 2017

Our world is filled with symbolism for those who notice.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson wrote, “A person gets from a symbol the meaning he puts into it, and what is one man’s comfort and inspiration is another’s jest and scorn.”

The words spring from West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. That opinion held that schools violate First Amendment rights by forcing students and staff to salute the flag.

Last week, I thought a lot about the meaning of our American flag.

I was in Massachusetts doing some historical research. Eventually, I found my way to Veterans Park at the Mary Ellen McCormack complex in South Boston. I snapped photos of a memorial for John Gerard Joyce, killed in South Vietnam on February 24, 1969. The sidewalk there is a brick puzzle etched with names from a rededication effort in 1995. Some pieces are missing.

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Three blue metal benches offer a place to sit around the memorial slab bearing Joyce’s name. A graduate of Boston Latin School and Boston State College where he studied secondary education, Corporal Joyce had joined the U.S. Army only five months earlier.

The circular engraving marks the earth below with an official seal declaring, “In recognition of the sacrifices made by our veterans, prisoners of war and those listed as missing in action.”

As I entered that open space between the benches to snap some photos, I noticed a seated man. “He died two years before I was born,” he abruptly said, gesturing toward the granite slab bearing Corporal Joyce’s name.

I looked at him curiously. “I served in the Persian Gulf War, but at least I was lucky enough to make it back home unlike him. It’s why I come here,” this veteran pensively continued.

Pointing a finger upwards, he added, “The stars and stripes are missing though.” Sure enough, the flag pole in this Veterans Park was completely bare. Nothing flapped in the wind.

The steely silo merely towered above as still and silent as the granite slab bearing Corporal Joyce’s name. The rope was tied down, too, motionless, without any further explanation.

That was peculiar, as I did not recall ever finding a Veterans Park without at least one American flag, if not more. We’d put a flag on the moon, at Iwo Jima, and at Ground Zero after 9/11; what was the challenge in having one here? I wondered whether this was really possible. Maybe it was taken down because of impending rain? Perhaps the person who raised it was just out sick?

Walking off, he replied he hadn’t seen the flag flying for all of this calendar year. My last words, as he prepared to cross the street, were “I hope they bring the flag back for you.”

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I was troubled. Although a mere visitor to the area, this exchange left me wanting to help. For this man who served and came to remember another who had served and not come home, the flag wasn’t just painted cloth. It was a symbol which evoked what that service had meant.

The Persian Gulf War was more than two decades ago, but he’d always be a veteran, carrying the memory of that time, no matter how much time would pass. The same goes for them all.

Further down in South Boston, towards Fort Independence, Medal of Honor Park contains the poignant phrase, “If you forget my death, then I died in vain.”

Corporal Joyce was someone new to me, but I wanted to do what I could to make sure he had a flag flying over his memorial there near Devine Way in South Boston, too.

So, I reached out to Boston City Councilor Bill Linehan’s office which includes South Boston in its jurisdiction and relayed the story of this missing flag. The staff there promised to look into it.

Urged to await some action, I checked the park the following day but still found an empty pole. Unsure how long any change would take, I reflected. This place called America is why they enlisted, died or went missing. It’s the very same nation where this veteran had returned home.

The following morning, I drove past Veterans Park again, dismayed it was my last full day in Boston. Surprisingly, three men were standing there around the pole, linking an unfurled flag to the pulley rope at that very moment! Engrossed in their task, they didn’t see me.

I turned the corner, parking nearby. From there, I watched the flag steadily ascend to the summit and slowly open to embrace the breeze. The sun tossed golden rays down. Those stars and stripes gently flapped like a bird released into open air from wherever it had been hiding.

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A wise veteran – I never did get his name – inspired me to find what he already knew. That deeper meaning made me want to salute then and there.

I wondered when he’d see Old Glory dancing again, free among treetops and an open basketball court below. The majestic scene was complete.


Author: Reared in rural Connecticut, Jason Bowns earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from New York University, majoring in Classical Civilization and Hellenic Studies while minoring in Politics and Social Studies Education. He earned his Master of Public Administration degree at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, honing essential skills to detect organizational fraud, waste, and abuse. He’s reachable at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

One Response to An Old Glory Story

  1. Patrick O'Hara Reply

    September 3, 2017 at 3:40 pm

    Situation–Citizen Action–Solution. Kudos to the author.

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