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updated: 1/19/2014 6:47 AM

Arlington Hts. man fights for military salute at Super Bowl

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  • For most of his life, this salute by retired Navy Cmdr. Robert E. Griffith would have been in violation of the U.S. Flag Code because the seasonal Florida resident from Arlington Heights isn't in uniform. Hoping to make a statement at this year's Super Bowl, Griffith is trying to publicize a recent change in the code that allows all veterans and military members the right to salute the flag, even while wearing civilian clothes.

      For most of his life, this salute by retired Navy Cmdr. Robert E. Griffith would have been in violation of the U.S. Flag Code because the seasonal Florida resident from Arlington Heights isn't in uniform. Hoping to make a statement at this year's Super Bowl, Griffith is trying to publicize a recent change in the code that allows all veterans and military members the right to salute the flag, even while wearing civilian clothes.
    courtesy of David Albers/ Naples News

  • The act of saluting our flag can be a powerful and emotional statement for Americans serving in the military, says retired Navy Cmdr. Robert E. Griffith of Arlington Heights. Once only the privilege of those in full uniform, the right to salute recently was expanded to include all veterans and military members, even when they are dressed as civilians. Leading an effort to publicize that change, Griffith, who spends his winters in Naples, Fla., says he wants all veterans at this year's Super Bowl to salute during our national anthem.

      The act of saluting our flag can be a powerful and emotional statement for Americans serving in the military, says retired Navy Cmdr. Robert E. Griffith of Arlington Heights. Once only the privilege of those in full uniform, the right to salute recently was expanded to include all veterans and military members, even when they are dressed as civilians. Leading an effort to publicize that change, Griffith, who spends his winters in Naples, Fla., says he wants all veterans at this year's Super Bowl to salute during our national anthem.
    Courtesy of David Albers/ Naples News

  • Serving in the Navy, Robert E. Griffith of Arlington Heights says he always took pride in wearing his nation's uniform and saluting the flag. Now the 79-year-old retired naval commander is striving to see that all veterans salute the flag during the national anthem at next month's Super Bowl.

      Serving in the Navy, Robert E. Griffith of Arlington Heights says he always took pride in wearing his nation's uniform and saluting the flag. Now the 79-year-old retired naval commander is striving to see that all veterans salute the flag during the national anthem at next month's Super Bowl.
    Courtesy of Robert E. Griffith

  • Still able to fit in his formal dress white uniform, retired Navy Cmdr. Robert Griffith of Arlington Heights attends a military reunion in 2006.

      Still able to fit in his formal dress white uniform, retired Navy Cmdr. Robert Griffith of Arlington Heights attends a military reunion in 2006.
    Courtesy of Robert E. Griffith

  • A man used to putting his ideas into action, Robert E. Griffith of Arlington Heights was a 66-year-old grandfather when he entered his first demolition derby. Adding a 6 to his age and dubbing his 666 car "The Beast," Griffith ended his demolition derby career at age 69 in much better condition than his car.

      A man used to putting his ideas into action, Robert E. Griffith of Arlington Heights was a 66-year-old grandfather when he entered his first demolition derby. Adding a 6 to his age and dubbing his 666 car "The Beast," Griffith ended his demolition derby career at age 69 in much better condition than his car.
    Courtesy of Robert E. Griffith

 
 

His Super Bowl mission is so important, retired Navy Cmdr. Robert E. Griffith of Arlington Heights breaks out a metaphor from another military branch to describe his fervent quest.

"I'm a one-man army," says Griffith, a robust idea man and lifelong entrepreneur who doesn't surrender easily. He can call in reinforcements from the Air Force, the Marines and the Coast Guard, but all Griffith really needs is about 5 seconds from the National Football League.

The energetic Griffith, who goes by Bob and says, "I'm 79-and-a-half," has written persuasive letters that won immediate backing from Illinois Sens. Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk. He's coaxed members of Congress to his side. But to make his dream come true, he needs the NFL to snap to it in time for the national anthem at the Super Bowl.

"All I want," Griffith says, "is for them to make this announcement: As now authorized by the United States Congress, all veterans of the Armed Forces are invited to render the military hand salute."

That's it? All those letters and phone calls just make sure that military veterans at a football game know they can salute the flag?

It's not that simple, says Griffith. A salute makes a powerful, and sometimes emotional, statement. When Griffith served in the Navy, the U.S. Flag Code reserved that privilege of saluting the flag for only those military members in uniform. No uniform, no salute.

After a lifetime of greeting the flag and "The Star-Spangled Banner" by standing with his hand over his heart as civilians are instructed to do, Griffith longed to once again deliver a crisp salute before the flag. A change in the flag code saying "members of the Armed Forces and veterans who are present but not in uniform may render the military salute," regardless of what they were wearing, was sponsored by U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma. Buried in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2008, which dealt with war funding and presidential powers, it was signed by President Bush on Jan. 28, 2008. That provision was expanded the following year to extend that salute allowance during the performance of our national anthem.

"But nobody knows about it," Griffith says. "Most people are unaware, and I mean the veterans."

Some veterans are aware of the new provision and working to repeal it.

"I'm a traditionalist," explains Mike Buss, the national flag expert for the American Legion, the veterans organization chartered by Congress and headquartered in Indianapolis. "We have a resolution asking to revisit this issue."

While the American Legion posts the flag code on its website, many members see the phrase "may render the military salute," and choose not to.

"If I'm wearing my Legion cap, I salute. If I'm wearing a baseball cap, I put my hand over my heart," says Terry Woodburn, adjutant for Illinois' American Legion headquarters in Bloomington. Woodburn says some veterans worry that civilians and children will see the salute of a veteran wearing very casual clothes and think they can do the same thing.

"Would that be so bad?" wonders Griffith, who remembers how people seemed touched, not offended, when young John-John Kennedy saluted the flag-draped coffin of his president father.

"While that could be cute, it's still not the traditional respect for the flag," Woodburn says.

Others argue that the clothes don't make the veteran.

"When we die, our families are presented with an American flag. I like the idea that I can salute that flag," says Barbara Wilson, manager of marketing and sales for Illinois Veterans of Foreign Wars and editor of the "Illinois VFW News." An Army veteran from 1985-93, Wilson says she doesn't want to see her right to salute taken from her. But she won't tell other vets how they should show their respect.

"We all served under the same flag to defend those individual rights," Wilson says.

A father of four and grandfather of seven, Griffith says he's been to patriotic concerts where the band conductor will ask veterans to stand.

"Should we just say you can only do that if you're dressed well?" Griffith says. "Veterans come in all sorts of shapes. They do stand up, and the people love it. When I've done it, I'm happy that I did."

Having started his business career in manufacturing, finding more success in real estate and launching his own business from the pool table in his basement, Griffith is used to seeing his efforts pay off. Thirteen years ago, at age 66, he entered a demolition derby, and he might still be driving in that county fair competition if his car hadn't given out after three years.

Wintering in Naples, Fla., where he won an Irish jig contest three years ago, Griffith has become a mover-and-shaker for the annual St. Patrick's Day Parade. His efforts are "all about Chicago," and led him to create his chicagolandflorida.org website. His salute effort doesn't have a website, but Griffith urges supporters to contact him at veteransalute@comcast.net.

The NFL has yet to respond to Griffith's request. But TV cameras showing veterans saluting during the national anthem at the Super Bowl would remind Americans of the sacrifices military members make and show respect for "what they've done," not how they look, he says.

"If successful, the sight of our veterans rendering a military salute at flag ceremonies will represent what I believe will become an enrichment to our national traditional flag ceremonies that will last for generations," Griffith says. "If we can get the Super Bowl, that would change everything, The Super Bowl could be the crowning glory."

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