The blistering, June heat didn’t stop Marine veteran Todd Winn standing outside the Utah Capitol to protest police brutality for hours.
Winn joined hundreds of thousands across the entire nation who have protested racism following the May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man prosecutors say was killed by a white Minneapolis police officer. But unlike other protesters, Winn chose to wear his Marine dress blues he had set aside more than a decade ago.
“When I put on the Marine Corps uniform for the first time in 2004, I swore to support and defend the Constitution,” Winn wrote in an open letter in June. “There’s no qualification on that. It’s not until a specific date, or only for certain people.”
“As courageous voices around the world rise together in a deafening roar to oppose the injustices facing our fundamental human rights, I stand humbled among you,” Winn wrote. “Racism, bigotry, hatred — these deplorable ideologies lead only to misery and suffering. History has proven this time after time.”
Winn was motivated to join the Corps following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and served two tours in Iraq before he was medically discharged after suffering traumatic brain injuries after only three year, according to KUTV.
But those years in uniform had a lasting impact on how Winn, who grew up in a rural town in Kansas and saw for himself the “destructive nature of racism.”
“Enlisting in the Marines allowed me to learn from men whose skin was a different color than mine that, ultimately, we are more similar than dissimilar,” Winn wrote in his open letter. “It does not do justice to the bond formed by Marines in combat to say that I came to love and respect these men as brothers, but I have no better description to offer.”
“These men taught me the true meaning of the Marine Corps principles of honor, courage, and commitment, as well as the ideal that one must lead by example,” Winn wrote.
“The Confederate battle flag has all too often been co-opted by violent extremist and racist groups whose divisive beliefs have no place in our Corps."
He took action on June 5 to join other demonstrators. With Floyd’s last words “I can’t breathe” emblazoned on black tape covering his mouth, Winn stood in his dress blues outside the Utah State Capitol for three hours, despite the nearly 100 degree Fahrenheit heat that melted his shoes. He capped off his protest by kneeling for eight minutes and 46 seconds ― the amount of time prosecutors claim the police officer pinned Floyd down on the concrete.
“On June 5th I put on my uniform, determined to stand in silent resolve for all human beings wronged by the injustice of racism and abuse of authority,” Winn said.
“It is to my great shame that such horrific events were required to remind me of my duty,” Winn said. “Those three hours I stood in watchful silence marked an end to my failure in speaking out against unconscionable ideologies.”
Since it’s taboo for service members to participate in protests or political events while in uniform, Winn has encountered some backlash for his decision to don his dress blues while protesting. While Winn acknowledged he understood why some were dismayed with his decision to protest in uniform, he said he did what he believed was right.
“To those of you who have been upset or disturbed by my decision to wear the uniform during this demonstration, all I have to say is, you’re right,” Winn said. “I support and understand your feelings. This is not a decision I made lightly. However, while it was — in a prescriptive sense — wrong, I believe it was the morally and ethically correct decision to make.”
Military leaders have been vocal that racism and bigotry aren’t welcome in the military. The Marine Corps was the first service to announce it was barring public displays of the Confederate battle flag on Marine Corps installations in June.
Winn shared the letter when contacted by Marine Corps Times, and referred Marine Corps Times to comments in publications including KUTV.
“My love for this country and its people is what drove me to serve in 2004, and what motivates me still today,” Winn said. “Those of us who have stood by for far too long, it is never too late to stand up for what is right.”