Thursday, September 25, 2014

Presidents, Salutes And Respect For Our Military

Yesterday I wrote about the weak cup-in-hand salute by President Obama when he got off the helicopter in New York on Tuesday. Controversy arose with some criticizing the President for saluting at the last second with his coffee (or tea) cup in his right hand and others said it was no big deal... "a salute is a salute" some said.

Most active duty and veteran military members would disagree with the latter. As I said yesterday, a salute is a sign of respect. Anyone who renders a salute expects to receive one in return. Enlisted troops are required to hold a salute until the Officer returns it and drops his/her hand. The enlisted person may drop their hand after that. And while the President of the United States is in no way obligated to return the salute rendered by his detail, I believe if he's going to do it he should do it correctly.

The President returning a salute to his military detail began with Ronald Reagan. Reagan, who didn't return the salute initially because he didn't think it was proper to return a salute when not in uniform (which technically is a choice not a regulation) found that it bothered him and he decided to begin returning it. Reagan wrote about it in a memoir:

I never ceased to enjoy reviewing our men and women in uniform and hope I started a new tradition for presidents. As commander in chief, I discovered it was customary for our uniformed men and women to salute whenever they saw me. When I'd walk down the steps of a helicopter, for example, there was always a marine waiting there to salute me. I was told presidents weren't supposed to return salutes, so I didn't, but this made me feel a little uncomfortable. Normally, a person offering a salute waits until it is returned, then brings down his hand. Sometimes, I realized, the soldier, sailor, marine, or airman giving me a salute wasn't sure when he was supposed to lower his hand. Initially, I nodded and smiled and said hello and thought maybe that would bring down the hand, but usually it didn't. Finally, one night when Nancy and I were attending a concert at the Marine Corps headquarters, I told the commandant of marines, "I know it's customary for the president to receive these salutes, but I was once an officer and realize that you're not supposed to salute when you're in civilian clothes. I think there ought to be a regulation that the president could return a salute inasmuch as he is commander in chief and civilian clothes are his uniform." "Well, if you did return a salute," the general said, "I don't think anyone would say anything to you about it."

The next time I got a salute, I saluted back. A big grin came over the marine's face and down came his hand. From then on, I always returned salutes. When George Bush followed me into the White House, I encouraged him to keep up the tradition.

I have read some things that say saluting when not in uniform is a breach of military etiquette. That assumption is wrong. Active duty service members can salute a superior officer anytime - whether or not they are in uniform. New legislation has made it a law that veterans can now salute the flag during the national anthem if they so choose. (I'm not sure why this needed to be a law. If I want to salute the flag I'm going to do it anyway.) The President of the United States, given his status as the Commander in Chief, can return a salute if he wishes.  It's a sign of respect, plain and simple.

Of course, once a commotion began over President Obama's "Nestea salute", a photo of President Bush showed up (naturally) in which Bush was holding his dog and saluting at the same time. What people fail to understand about that photo is that according to military protocol, if someone is holding something with both hands he/she is not required to salute. Bush moved the dog to his left hand long enough to free his right hand and return the salute. It's not pretty but he made the effort. And that dog was bigger and heavier than a cup of tea.

As I said yesterday, the big difference for me in all of this is attitude and actions toward our military. In March of 2009, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki confirmed to the public that the Obama administration was considering a plan to make veterans pay for treatment of service-related injuries with private insurance. They wanted to save federal funds by making our wounded warriors pay for their own care. The plan was quickly abandoned due to public outcry.

President Bush, love him or hate him, loves our military. He visited the troops on a regular basis while in office and he still visits our wounded warriors today. He holds his annual 100K Wounded Warrior bike ride, riding alongside them and hanging out with them for three days in Southwest Texas. 

And who can forget this touching image? I have yet to see a photo like this of President Obama and I have serious doubts that it will ever happen.

President Obama has been to Afghanistan to visit the troops. I'll give him that. And he has been to a hospital once or twice to visit our wounded warriors. But he doesn't display anywhere near the love and concern for them as Bush does. For him it's mostly a photo opportunity.

Another outrage that hit the airwaves last year was the umbrella caper. President Obama had a couple of Marines hold umbrellas over him and then Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a speech in the rain in the Rose Garden. I give the President a little leeway on this since I'm sure he had no idea it's against Marine dress code regulations for them to carry or use an umbrella while in uniform. But the Marines certainly weren't going to refuse the President's request. 

When Bush visited overseas he didn't have a Marine carrying an umbrella over him. Nor did the head of state he was visiting provide someone to do it. Bush had his own umbrella the head of state had an assistant who did it. The contrasts are pretty remarkable if you really pay attention.

Let's not forget this little oversight. Look at the eyes of the Marine - waiting and wondering if the President is going to return his salute.

Personally, given President Obama's lack of a military background, I would be OK if he decided not to return the salute anymore. It is not required and it's just another point of contention that draws criticism. He would be perfectly within his right to make that decision and I would support it if he did. I saw a comment this morning from one person that said "He did do it correctly since he is not required to do it at all then any way he does it IS the correct way." And the guy who posted it says he's a Vietnam veteran. Apparently his love for Obama outweighs his love for his fellow service members.

Again - I don't care if President Obama discontinues the tradition. That's his choice. The only thing I ask is that if he's going to continue it, at least have the courtesy and respect to do it correctly. It's not difficult and it certainly improves his rapport with those serving on his detail. And like his Secret Service detail - those people should be important to him. They are, after all, volunteers.

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