Airman 1st Class Ezell Jones Jr. reacts to the crowd after helping hold the American flag during the national anthem at a professional soccer game in New Jersey. (Sgt. Russell Toof /Army)

In the United States, our armed forces pledge an oath to the Constitution, not to the flag and not to any individual leader. That oath would carry me all over the country and to some unpleasant corners of the world.

The Constitution acts as the touchstone of our service; service that for many of us, does not end on the day we take off our uniform. After I came home from Afghanistan in 2013, I decided to serve my country in a different way. I left the Army and joined Teach for America where I became a high school math teacher in San Jose. In each case, I was surrounded by others willing to make huge sacrifices for the greater good.

The teachers and staff I worked with were just as patriotic as the soldiers I served alongside. However, we seem to have decided that, in this country, veterans and service members have a monopoly on service and patriotism. We have drawn a false equivalency between military service and love of country without recognizing that patriotism takes many forms and is far more complicated than a simple salute.

Sixteen consecutive years of war fought by less than 1 percent of the population has created a dynamic — it’s called the civil-military divide — whereby many Americans have never met anyone who has deployed into combat. People with no military connection in their families often feel uncomfortable asking veterans about their service or feel so distant from the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and beyond that they simply cannot relate.

These wars have played out in the background while the rest of America moved forward. As a result, when it comes to understanding veterans, many Americans default to hero worship. Hence, the support-our-troops ceremonies at sporting events.

Rather than recognize that the injustices confronted by our service members abroad run rampant on our own soil today, we say “thank you for your service” and get angry when football players take a knee. That is not patriotism.

Patriotism is recognizing that those men are taking a knee because our country is deeply flawed and that segments of our citizenry have suffered from systemic inequality for centuries.

Patriotism is asking hard questions and demanding that America do better. It is asking Congress how we continue to be involved in conflicts around the world without any congressional mandate.

Patriotism is demanding reform within the Department of Veterans Affairs. It is fighting homelessness and the opioid crises across the nation. It is demanding criminal justice reform and asking why, in 2017, the quality of your education is determined by your Zip code.

Patriotism is nuanced.

Slapping a “support the troops” bumper sticker on your car does not make you a patriot, nor does standing for the national anthem. These are symbols — meaningless without the values that underlie their existence.

Patriots are critical thinkers who hold leaders accountable by asking tough questions and recognizing the flaws in our democracy.

Criticism is deeply patriotic. It keeps our leaders accountable and forces us to recognize that we are still on the long, hard march toward a “more perfect Union.”

Patriots do not stand idle when there is work to be done. They find partners, build coalitions and make an impact.

On Sept. 25, our president retweeted a picture of former professional football Pat Tillman who famously enlisted in the Army following 9/11 and was tragically killed in a fratricide incident in 2004. The picture included a caption intended to juxtapose Tillman’s service with the perceived disrespect rendered by NFL players during the weekend.

In 2016, I was named a Tillman Scholar by the Pat Tillman Foundation, and while I never had the honor of knowing him, I have gotten to know his family and his friends. What has been made clear is that Pat lived his life with a zeal and passion that was matched only by his curiosity and desire to challenge himself. To portray him as the example of blind patriotism is a disservice to him, one rooted in naivete.

While I never assume that I know what Pat would have done, I believe he would have put his arm around his teammates and tried to understand their struggles by asking hard questions and engaging in thoughtful, civil dialogue. Pat’s patriotism was not a blind, unwavering loyalty to a piece of cloth. It was a bold and steadfast loyalty to the values that give that cloth meaning.

In the United States, we do not force people to engage in rote ceremonies or stand at attention for the flag by force of threat. The beauty of America is that this is a nation where every citizen has the ability to voice dissent without fear of reprisal. That conversation propels us forward.

As someone who has worn the flag on my shoulder in combat, I feel a deep pride at the sight of it. To me, the flag represents a common bond of service between myself and my sisters and brothers in uniform.

I am proud to stand and salute the flag, but my discomfort with anyone who exercises differently pales in comparison to the feelings in the hearts of those who kneel because they cannot be proud of what America has been for them.

The most patriotic thing I can do, is listen.

Ashley Nicolas is a 2009 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point. She served as an Army intelligence officer and female engagement team leader, completing a tour in Kandahar, Afghanistan. A 2016 Pat Tillman Foundation scholar, Nicolas is a student at Georgetown University Law Center. On Twitter: @AshCNicolas

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