There's nothing like a service member in uniform with his newborn. Maybe it was giving birth alone that did me in. Maybe it's the troops I've seen meet their babies for the first time at the homecoming ceremony. Or maybe it's the infants whose fathers never made it home to hold them. But to me flag + baby + service member = heart swelling magic. The flag deserves the utmost respect. So do these moms and dads. It's an easy marriage.
Which is why when I saw the controversy over a photo of a Navy daddy cradling his newborn in a flag, I was a little confused. I am the first one to tell you that flag etiquette is of the utmost importance. I've written about it. I annoy my friends with it. I've been physically restrained from knocking on a stranger's door and telling them their tattered flag is shameful. This? This just doesn't bother me.
But it does bother a lot of people. Virginia Beach Navy wife and professional photographer Vanessa Hicks woke-up the morning of March 9 to find that the photo she had taken of a Navy dad and his baby had been posted to a photographer shaming Facebook page. The admins, one of whom claims to have been active duty for 27 years and lost a son, said that the photo disrespects the flag and violates US flag code, which is federal law.
UPDATE: The shaming page appears to have been removed.
"This flag is a symbol of everything my son died for many years ago. It was of the utmost honor to have a flag laid upon your coffin as my son did," a page admin wrote. "That honor is taken away when disrespectful photographers throw our flag code out the window ... Disgusting."
That started a firestorm of controversy. Now Hicks is appearing repeatedly on national TV to defend and discuss her work and the flag, is fielding more photo shoot sessions than she can handle, is donating 15 percent of her profits to the USO and is giving the family featured in the controversial photo free photo shoots for life.
"I am very well aware of our US Flag code," she wrote on her page. "I also know exactly what desecration of a flag is. It's when you pull into ports and you see protestors with our flag and have spray painted horrible things on it. It's when you watch the news and you see other countries burning our flags, and you are a young Quartermaster scared because you know you are just a few nautical miles from that exact country."
While federal law, violation of the US flag code does not come with any sort of punishment or fines -- it's simply a matter of respect and personal decision (the Supreme Court ruled long ago that such punishment would be a first amendment violation). And boy do people make what I consider to be bad flag decisions.
Using the flag as a table cloth on HGTV? Very bad.
Katy Perry wearing it as a dress or seeing it used as any other type of clothing, flip flop or beach towel? Also very bad.
Baby in a flag held by his service member ...?
The flag code is really specific about how the flag should be treated. And no, as a baby sling in a photo shoot is not on the list.
However, sometimes I think that some of the ways Americans show respect for our country, the sacrifice of our service members and, yes, the flag is open to interpretation. The Supreme Court agreed when they refused to give teeth to the flag law itself.
To me photos like this one are showing respect in their own way. Flags are nothing if not a symbol, and in this picture the flag is a symbol for the sacrifice made by the Sailor, by his military family and, while he doesn't yet know it, by this baby.