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WHAT THE UNITED STATES FLAG MEANS TO ME

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U.S. Air Force Technical Sgt. Robert Collier, 477th Fighter Group cyber flight superintendent, graduates from Intermediate Leadership Experience (ILE) also winning the John L. Levitow Award for class 19-2 at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, April 5, 2019. The John L. Levitow Award is the highest award for enlisted Professional Military Education in the Air Force and is presented to the student who demonstrates the most outstanding leadership and scholastic achievement throughout ALS, NCOA and SNCOA. (U.S. Air Force photo by Technical Sgt. Michael Campbell)

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U.S. Air Force Technical Sgt. Robert Collier, 477th Fighter Group cyber flight superintendent, graduates from Intermediate Leadership Experience (ILE) also winning the John L. Levitow Award for class 19-2 at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, April 5, 2019. The John L. Levitow Award is the highest award for enlisted Professional Military Education in the Air Force and is presented to the student who demonstrates the most outstanding leadership and scholastic achievement throughout ALS, NCOA and SNCOA. (Photo by U.S. Air Force Technical Sgt. Michael Campbell)

Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, AK --

Technical Sgt. Robert Collier, 477 Cyber Superintendent, attended Non Commissioned Officers Academy Class 19-2 at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Mar. 4 to April 5, 2019. As part of the class the members where given the opportunity to submit a Freedom Citation essay, in which he chose to write about his personal story on what the flag means to him. Chief Master Sergeant Michael J. Venning, commandant of the Elmendorf Professional Military Education Center at JBER, asked him to read his story at graduation.

To those who have made the ultimate sacrifice;

I knew it would be emotional for me to share, but I felt my story would help others. I wanted other military members to know it is okay to feel loss and grief, and that they will get past those feelings. I chose to honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice by joining the Air Force Reserves and to help make a difference in the lives of those around me.  

What the American flag means to me is not easy to define. The flag has been a source of pride in my profession, has served as a symbol for tremendous loss and pain, and now serves as a reminder to be there for my brothers and sisters in arms. 

When I joined the Air Force, the flag gave me a sense of pride and symbolized my chosen profession. I was an Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician; my profession meant everything to me. I wanted to be the technician everyone wanted on their team. I wanted to serve my country and protect those around me. I was proud to stand outside and salute at retreat, and I didn't understand why other Airmen would run back inside to avoid retreat. I served in active duty faithfully for almost nine years and separated to attend college, to fulfill a promise to myself. However, the meaning of the flag would soon change drastically for me.

While I was on terminal leave August 21, 2006, a close friend was killed. I didn't realize just how much that would affect me; I was angry and confused. Five months later, another friend was killed, along with his entire team. Then on April 4, 2009, one of my best friends was killed. I was entirely at a loss and the lowest point in my life. I found myself on a plane bound for Washington D.C., to Arlington National cemetery. At his funeral the flag took on an entirely new meaning for me….  Even though I was a civilian, I was allowed to stand in the military formation. I watched as the horse-drawn carriage trotted up the road with the flag draped over his coffin. As I saluted, I saw an Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician drop to his knees.

I tried to focus on the flag, but I was consumed by an overwhelming sense of loss and grief. I knew the flag was supposed to represent the ultimate sacrifice of our fallen brothers and sister in arms. However, it ultimately reminded me of the pain and grief in the faces of their loved ones. I will never forget as I watched the honor guard fold the flag and hand it to my friend's wife as she sat next to her two small children. I collapsed inwardly and felt weak; I didn't know how else to feel. My emotions took over, and for a time, whenever I saw the flag, those emotions came back.

After graduating from college, I tried going back to the military on as active duty. However, the Air Force was cutting its numbers, and I ran into multiple roadblocks in that first year. As one year turned into two, I started working within the veteran community. I began to find real purpose in my life. I talked with many fellow veterans, and they still all said the same thing; they wanted to serve. Many of my close friends had sustained severe injuries and were not physically able to serve. However, I was not held back by injuries; I was willing and able to serve in any capacity. So I looked to the Air Force Reserve and was motivated to join. Thankfully I was accepted on February 15, 2013. 

Now that I am serving again, I see the flag in a new light. I see it as the embodiment of our fallen brothers and sisters, specifically their leadership and guidance, which was taken from us when they died. I feel I owe it to them to lead those around me and to make a difference in people’s lives. The flag represents that challenge to me to lead the way they would have led. 

I wear the uniform because I wanted to give all of myself to the military members around me. Moreover, I choose to embody the leadership qualities our fallen brothers and sisters would be proud of. I give everything I can because they are no longer able.

I hope that others can change their grief into something meaningful in their lives.

TSgt Collier won the John L. Levitow Award for the Non Commissioned Officers Academy Class 19-2 graduation, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, April 5, 2019. The John L. Levitow Award is the highest award for enlisted Professional Military Education in the Air Force and is presented to the student who demonstrates the most outstanding leadership and scholastic achievement throughout ALS, NCOA and SNCOA.