Service members, veterans weigh in on NFL protest

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (C), outside linebacker Eli Harold (L), and free safety Eric Reid (R) take a knee during the U.S. national anthem before the NFL game between the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California, on October 2, 2016. Kaepernick is protesting police brutality and oppression in America. Photo by John Mabanglo/European Press Agency

Oct. 9 (UPI) — On the same day Vice President Mike Pence left an NFL game after players protested during the National Anthem, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America revealed new findings of how military service members and veterans feel about the polarizing national debate on the protests.

The non-partisan veteran organization, which boasts a membership of over 400,000 members nationwide, found a wide range of varying opinions from the 8,000 veterans and servicemembers that responded to the poll.

“Much of America is talking about the protests in the NFL,” said Iraq veteran, Founder and CEO Paul Rieckhoff, in a press release from IAVA.

“Many people are claiming to speak on behalf of veterans and troops. We wanted to give veterans and troops the opportunity to speak for themselves. The most important takeaway from this groundbreaking data is that there is no monolithic veteran opinion,” Rieckhoff said. “The opinions of veterans are often as diverse as those of all Americans.”

The IAVA study released Sunday found that 98 percent of service members and veterans believe the First Amendment protects the right to peacefully protest, with 62 percent lamenting that NFL players have the right to protest during a game.

However, both veterans and active duty service members were torn over the issue of President Trump’s handling of the NFL protest issue — while 43 percent agreed with the commander-in-chief’s response to the NFL and its players, 48 percent disagreed.

Conversely, participants disagreed with how the NFL has handled the controversy, with 55 percent of those polled finding the NFL’s overall response was lackluster. As it stands right now, 39 percent will not watch NFL games because of their disagreement with the protests.

On social media this weekend, debates broke out among veterans as another Sunday of football continued the conversation about patriotism and marginalized groups, Gold Star families and the racial divide.

Former U.S. Navy SEAL Robert J. O’Neill, who is most famous for killing Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan in May 2011, wrote on Twitter, saying, “Let me put this in the simplest way: When you kneel during our National Anthem, regardless of your argument, you are insulting vets. Period.”

While some on social media praised O’Neill for his stance on the issue, the comment drew attention from other veterans that proclaimed the former Navy SEAL was not the arbitrator of all veteran perspectives.

Fred Wellman, a West Point graduate and Army veteran of Desert Storm and Iraq, tweeted, “This veteran isn’t insulted. Did I miss the vote when you became our spokesman?”

Protests of the anthem by NFL players began last year when then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled in protest against racial injustice and police brutality stemming from the growing divide between some police departments and the communities they police.

“Veterans can play a unique and important leadership role in America, especially in moments that test our national unity. We have invaluable experience and perspective — especially around questions of patriotism,” Rieckhoff said. “We hope this data and our voices will add light to a discussion so far dominated by heat.”

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