Emotions Run High as Veterans React to Violence, Flag Removal in Capitol

January 8, 2021Ethan E. Rocke
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President Donald Trump speaks at the “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington, D.C. Jan. 6. Photo by Joseph Andrew Lee/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Most days, Marine veteran Jake Cowan proudly displays the American flag on his favorite camouflage ball cap. The day after protesters clashed with police and stormed the US Capitol building, Cowan turned his flag patch upside down.

“Yeah … yeah I did. And it hurts my heart,” Cowan wrote on a Facebook post with a photo of the flag positioned to signal a state of distress. “Lots of weird looks at the airport today, and I’ve never once disrespected my country, but we need help. A lot of it.”

“I cried in my bathroom today because I was so upset,” Cowan told Coffee or Die Magazine. “I didn’t know what to do with my emotions. It hurt me to do it, but I felt like I had to do something. And it’s not about the president. It just hurts me that our American people acted like that. I believe in individual liberty, but you start hurting your own people? It’s just so sad that things have gotten to this point.”

In the wake of the unprecedented siege on the Capitol that forced Vice President Pence and all of Congress to halt proceedings to certify the election and evacuate the building, American veterans reacted strongly to the news.

Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) on Thursday chastised President Donald Trump and his GOP colleagues in Congress for opposing the election results and inciting the violent breach in the Capitol.

Photo courtesy of @DanCrenshawTX on Twitter.

“All of the members who called for everyone to come and fight and make their last stand, all of those members were scattered like cowards while the Capitol Police had to do the fighting,” the former Navy SEAL told Hearst Newspapers.

Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, who served as Trump’s defense secretary and resigned in protest in December 2018, put out a scathing statement after Wednesday’s incident.

“Today’s violent assault on our Capitol, an effort to subjugate American democracy by mob rule, was fomented by Mr. Trump. His use of the Presidency to destroy trust in our election and to poison our respect for fellow citizens has been enabled by pseudo political leaders whose names will live in infamy as profiles in cowardice. Our Constitution and our Republic will overcome this stain and We the People will come together again in our never-ending effort to form a more perfect Union, while Mr. Trump will deservedly be left a man without a country.”

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence depart the Pentagon following a meeting of the National Security Council in Washington, D.C., July 20, 2017. (DOD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro)
Former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis alongside President Donald Trump at the Pentagon following a meeting of the National Security Council in Washington, D.C., July 20, 2017. US Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro

Days before the rally, Mattis joined the nine other living former secretaries of defense in penning an op-ed for the Washington Post that warned against the military intervening to overturn the election results. His cohort included Leon Panetta and Mark Esper, who put out their own statements following the Capitol siege.

Panetta, who served two years as an Army intelligence officer in the 1960s, went on to serve in Congress, as White House chief of staff, CIA director, and defense secretary. He spoke to KCBS Radio’s Patti Reising and Jeff Bell following the riot at the US Capitol.

“I never imagined that I would see what I did today at the United States Capitol,” Panetta said. “I think there was certainly enough evidence that these protesters were going to do exactly what they did, and that somehow sufficient security was not provided around the Capitol to make sure that it would not happen and we saw the results of that, which were very disturbing to watch.”

Mark Esper, the West Point graduate and former Army lieutenant colonel who served as Trump’s defense secretary before being fired in November, called the assault on the Capitol “appalling and un-American.”

mark esper, coffee or die
Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper delivers remarks at RAND Santa Monica, Calif., Sept. 16, 2020. DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando via DVIDS.

“This is not how citizens of the world’s greatest and oldest democracy behave. The perpetrators who committed this illegal act were inspired by partisan misinformation and patently false claims about the election. This must end now for the good of the republic,” Esper tweeted.

“As this transition plays out over the next two weeks, I am confident the U.S. military will stay out of politics and remain true to its sworn oath to support and defend the Constitution, and the American people, as the most trusted and respected institution in the country,” he added.

Coffee or Die spoke to a former Marine captain who served in Afghanistan and attended the “Stop the Steal” rally in support of President Trump.

President Donald Trump speaks at the “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington, D.C. Jan. 6. Photo by Joseph Andrew Lee/Coffee or Die Magazine.

The former captain, who asked not to be identified, said he and his younger brother, who is a military veteran and police officer, didn’t participate in the assault on the Capitol, but they were proud to attend the rally and support the President’s effort to prevent the certification of the election results.

“We saw Trump’s Twitter post about, ‘Hey, I need you guys to come out here and support me on January 6.’ And we felt like, we’ve got to let the Congress know that there’s people backing Trump up in regard to there being something funky about these electoral votes.”

The former captain said he decided to use the event as an opportunity to expose his 12-year-old son to “some civic military history.”

“I knew it was going to be a decent sized rally and it would probably get a little rowdy,” he said. “But I figured, for us personally, we just wanted to attend to let my son see that we support a guy that we agree with. I don’t necessarily think he’s the savior of America at all, but I agree with a lot of things that he’s tried to do.”

The brothers both told Coffee or Die they believe the Capitol Police overreacted to the protesters who forced their way into the Capitol, and they believe Trump’s claims of voter fraud should have been investigated further.

Supporters of President Donald Trump demonstrate at the “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington, D.C. Jan. 6. Photo by Joseph Andrew Lee/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill), who serves as a lieutenant colonel in the Air National Guard, called for Trump to be removed from office after the President’s supporters stormed the Capitol.

“All indications are that the president has become unmoored — not just from his duty, or even his oath, but from reality itself,” Kinzinger said in a video message released Thursday morning. “It is for this reason that I call for the vice president and members of the Cabinet to ensure the next few weeks are safe for the American people.”

Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass) is a veteran Marine Corps officer who served several tours in Iraq and ran for president in 2020. He joined Kinzinger in calling for Trump’s removal from office.

Supporters of President Donald Trump protest at the “Stop the Steal” rally outside the Capitol Jan. 6. Photo by Joseph Andrew Lee/Coffee or Die Magazine.

“Trump is directly responsible for this insurrection and violence. He needs to be removed from office immediately,” Moulton tweeted Wednesday. “It is the Constitutional responsibility of Vice President Pence and the cabinet to exercise the power granted them by the 25th amendment.”

CNN reported that Deputy National Security Adviser Matthew Pottinger, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine intelligence officer, resigned in response to Trump’s reaction to the mob breaching the Capitol.

Among the scenes caught on camera during the chaos at the Capitol Wednesday was the image of protesters removing an American flag from the Capitol building, and attempting to replace it with a Trump flag — a scene that disturbed and angered many.

“As a service member, it’s disheartening that these things are directly impacting our lives, work, and families,” an Army Blackhawk pilot told Coffee or Die. “We have to try to stay neutral while the symbol of freedom we’ve pledged our lives to, waged war to defend and lost friends in the name of gets denigrated and cast aside so callously.

“The last thing service members want to see is Americans fighting Americans,” she added. “It becomes very personal for us.”

Dr. Juan Ramos, a former Special Forces medic and a Pat Tillman Scholar, was also disturbed by the image of the flag being removed and cast aside.

“When I put that flag on my shoulder or hang it on my porch, it means much more to me than the thread and cloth it is made of,” Ramos told Coffee or Die. “It means that my daughter can go to school without worrying about being blown up. My wife can teach children math without worry of having acid thrown on her. My father from Mexico can build a successful business after years of toil. Wives of brothers who have been lost in war can look to that folded flag and remember them by it. It reminds me that I have the freedom to worship my God because of their sacrifice. Those that desecrate it do not know what it is to bleed for those colors. They do not know what it is to not live under those colors. I pity them.”

Ethan E. Rocke
Ethan E. Rocke

Ethan E. Rocke is a contributor and former senior editor for Coffee or Die Magazine, a New York Times bestselling author, and award-winning photographer and filmmaker. He is a veteran of the US Army and Marine Corps. His work has been published in Maxim Magazine, American Legion Magazine, and many others. He is co-author of The Last Punisher: A SEAL Team THREE Sniper’s True Account of the Battle of Ramadi.

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