On Oct. 12, 2000, Al Qaeda terrorists attacked the USS Cole while it was docked in the Yemeni port of Aden. Seventeen U.S. sailors died in the attack; 39 were wounded.
Even as fires aboard ship were being put out and efforts were under way to keep as many of the wounded alive as possible, President Bill Clinton ordered “that the flag of the United States shall be flown at half-staff upon all public buildings and grounds, at all military posts and naval stations, and on all naval vessels of the Federal Government in the District of Columbia and throughout the United States and its Territories and possessions.”
On Saturday, Aug. 6, a U.S. Chinook helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan, and 38 people, including 30 American servicemen, were killed. Days have gone by, but the U.S. flag continues to fly at full staff.
This is disgraceful in and of itself. In wartime, it is true, Americans die every day, and this country is at war on two fronts, not just one. If the death of servicemen were to be considered, then, flags would be flying at half-staff for as long as a war lasted. Yet this was not just another wartime casualty; it was the worst such tragedy in the 10 years that we have been fighting in Afghanistan.
What makes the absence of lowered flags an even greater disgrace is the fact that most of the Americans killed in the downing of the helicopter were members of an elite Navy SEALs unit that is assigned the most difficult, dangerous, and important missions, including the attack on May 2 in which Osama bin Laden was killed.
The greatest disgrace, perhaps, is that federal law does not even mention service personnel in outlining when the flag is to be lowered. According to 4 U.S.C. 7(m), the flag must be lowered following the death of a president or former president; a current or former vice president; a justice of the United States; a speaker of the House; a secretary of an executive or military department; and a member of Congress. The law also gives the president discretion to lower the flag following the death of “principal figures of the United States Government and the Governor of a State, territory, or possession” and for foreign dignitaries.
We send our bravest into battle all too often, but we are ill-prepared to honor them when they fall.
Our honored dead deserve better.