PHOTO: Turf flag

A flag emblem at the 33 yard line of Massaponax High’s football field honors the late Cpl. Ryan McGhee.

IF THE recent spat between members of the Spotsylvania Board of Supervisors and the School Board over the likeness of a U.S. flag embedded in the football field at Massaponax High School seems like a trifle to you when cities around the country are in turmoil and statues of historical figures are being toppled daily by unruly mobs, you’re not alone.

But symbols matter.

The “flag” in question was stitched into the synthetic surface of the field to honor Cpl. Ryan McGhee, a former Panthers linebacker and Army Ranger who was killed in Balad, Iraq, in 2009 after serving three tours of duty in Afghanistan.

Massaponax football coach Eric Ludden said that the idea for the tribute at the 33-yard line—McGhee’s jersey number was 33—came from his son, Shane, who had played on the same team with McGhee, who graduated in 2006.

But the Board of Supervisors objected. Board Chairman Gary Skinner wrote a letter to the School Board saying “this is not the proper way” to honor the fallen soldier, citing the U.S. Flag Code, which states exactly how the Stars and Stripes are to be displayed. “There are some people that don’t feel it’s appropriate with people running over it,” Skinner explained.

We won’t take issue with supervisors’ understandable reluctance to see the flag some of them served under in the military trampled underfoot. Their objection was noble, if misguided.

As School Board members correctly pointed out before they voted unanimously to keep the memorial on the field, the turf emblem honoring McGhee is not really a flag but a symbolic reference to one. In addition to the football field tribute, Soccer Field Number 5 at Patriot Park is also dedicated to McGhee “for his courageous service to our country and selfless service to save the lives of his fellow Rangers.”

A joint resolution passed by the General Assembly this past March noted that McGhee “was inspired by the events of September 11, 2001, and by his role model, the late Pat Tillman, a former professional football player and United States Army Ranger, to serve his country after graduating high school.” He would go on to earn the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the Meritorious Service Medal, and a host of other military awards, packing more accomplishments into his brief 21 years on Earth than some people manage to do in a lifetime.

When football returns to Massaponax, the turf “flag” will remind Panthers players and fans alike of the bravery and ultimate sacrifice made by one of their own—which is the purpose of public memorials to the fallen, even such an unconventional war memorial as this one, which has the added advantage that it can’t be toppled by an angry mob.

It also reminds the rest of us that as long as duty, honor and country still inspire outstanding young people like Cpl. McGhee to voluntarily place themselves in harm’s way, the future of the United States of America is assured.

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