Why I Didn't Stand for the National Anthem
By Barry Romo
After returning from the Vietnam War, I went nearly three decades without standing for the national anthem.
I enlisted in the Army right out of high school in 1966 on the buddy system with several of my friends. I couldn't wait to go to Vietnam. I was sent to Fort Bliss in Texas for training. We were so proud when we heard reveille and taps play that we would run outside to salute, even when we weren't expected to.
I was sent to Vietnam as an infantry platoon leader when I was 19. While I was there, my nephew Bobby was drafted and sent to Vietnam as well. My brother was 25 years older than me and had served in World War II. His son, my nephew, was actually a month younger than me. We were like brothers. I had wanted to fight in Vietnam, Bobby did not. But we both ended up in the same brigade.
Bobby died in an ambush at Dong Ha. When I got the news, returning from patrol that day, I had to wait two days before the intense fire died down and we could get his body. I escorted Bobby back home. At Bobby's funeral, I almost jumped into the open grave when they performed the gun salute.
After Bobby's death, I finished my tour stateside and I went home. When the fighting in Cambodia began, I couldn't hide, and I couldn't cover my eyes any longer. I became politically active and I found Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) (or they found me). I had turned against the war, and I had turned against the racism and police repression of minorities in our country.
My friend, Gary Lawton, was picked up and arrested for murder and conspiracy to commit murder. Gary was an African American community organizer in Riverside, California. He had been in the marines in the 1950s. Two white police officers had been killed nearby. He and two other African American men were picked up and charged with their murders. The three men didn't know each other and came from different backgrounds. One had been in Divinity school.
There was no evidence of Gary's guilt or involvement. Gary was often kept in solitary confinement even though he hadn't been tried or found guilty. When he was brought into the court for trial, he refused to stand for the judge. So I began to do the same, in solidarity. And it went from there. I didn't stand for the national anthem at sporting events. I didn't even stand at my daughter's high school graduation. For nearly thirty years, I never stood.
Gary was tried three times. The first two trials resulted in a hung jury. During this time, I was elected to the National Office for VVAW. I promised Gary's family I would be back for the trials. He was eventually released on bail and VVAW helped launch a defense committee, which I became the head of. Gary went on a speaking tour to raise support and awareness.
For the third trial, Gary was found innocent in the first vote in the third trial. After having a public defender in the second trial, Gary had a former marine JAG lawyer represent him. He was found innocent with the first vote of the jurors. Gary was only the second person in history in California to be tried three times for the same crime.
After Vietnam, after the treatment of Gary Lawton, and in response to the ongoing police repression, I chose not to stand. It didn't bother me if others did, but it wasn't the right thing for me to do.
If a football player like Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers chooses not to stand for the national anthem in response to and protest of racial injustice, I applaud him for his conviction. He is risking endorsements and his career by kneeling instead.
Now I do stand when the national anthem is played, but I also stand in support of anyone who exercises his or her right not to.
Barry Romo is a long-time VVAW member and Chicago resident.