Some things remain stubbornly the same every Memorial Day weekend: obligatory cookouts; carte blanche to wear white pants for the next three months; social media sermons on the difference between Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day. There are the more poignant traditions too: placing flags at all the national cemeteries, from Arlington to Ft. Bayard; the President’s speech at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier; the American flag to be flown at half-staff until noon; ceremonies across the country to remember those men and women who gave their lives in service to the United States.

Since World War I, nearly 625,000 Americans have been killed in war. This number doesn’t include the many thousands more wounded or injured in a way that would eventually cause their death after returning from combat. The Department of Veterans Affairs attempts to calculate these latter statistics, but they change daily.

This year roughly 425,000 young men and women will enlist in the armed forces, numbers similar to previous years. 2020 recruiting numbers, even during a pandemic, held steady, and all the services met their recruiting goals. Despite the political polarization of our nation, nearly a half million young people think our country is worth volunteering their lives for. Despite 20 years of constant war in Afghanistan and Iraq, more than 400,000 of our best and brightest will swear to uphold and defend the Constitution this year.

A fundamental point for those who have applied the binary labeling system of “patriot” and “traitor” to our country’s population: people in the military belong to more than one political party.

These young people are bringing the best our country has to offer in an uncertain time. While we wind down the War on Terror, China and Russia remain threats to world order. With Iran they seek disruption on many levels: economic, technological, and military. To stay ahead of these hybrid threats, today’s troops are more than warriors—they are highly skilled technicians who must also develop strong personal resilience. As always, the global future is uncertain.

Back at home, one of the most divisive of our nation’s ongoing culture wars began five years ago when an NFL player knelt during the pre-game national anthem. Our military and veterans somehow became the center of it as one outraged faction decided the player was insulting them. But angry people tweeting about one quarterback’s right to protest have nothing to do about why young Americans volunteer to serve their country.

Americans join the military because we want to be part of something greater than ourselves. We join with the understanding that our oath of service may require the ultimate sacrifice. When we are young and new to the service, we don’t fully understand the depth and breadth of our action, because we are young and new. But we get that the United States stands apart in the world and we want to get closer to that ideal: of human dignity, personal freedom, and just government elected by citizens. That journey is different for every veteran. For some, it ends far too soon.

In other western countries, the idea of playing the national anthem before sporting events is considered ludicrous. Some of them also have military conscription, where everyone has to spend a year in the armed forces because they could never maintain a military with an all-volunteer force. We have the luxury of a culture of patriotism and national service.

There is great beauty to me in a ceremony heavy in military protocol—especially a Memorial Day ceremony. I like to attend them. I feel proud to salute the flag and stand at attention for the national anthem. But I don’t have to. And that makes all the difference.

The United States is singular in so many ways that it seems a terrible risk to our national ethos to continue sniping over what our neighbors or even celebrities do. One of the fundamental rights of Americans is the right to protest. The instant that saluting any national symbol—the flag, an anthem—were to become mandatory on any level for citizens, the free United States our military signed up to serve would be lost.

Merritt Hamilton Allen is a PR executive and former Navy officer. She lives amicably with her Democratic husband and Republican mother north of I-40 where they run two head of dog, and two of cat. She can be reached at news.ind.merritt@gmail.com.