Overdue move to lower flags as gesture for war dead the right choice

It was a small thing. In the world of heartache unleashed on Army Sgt. Anthony Jason Schober’s family last month, the fact flags at the state Capitol dipped to half-staff to honor his death from enemy fire May 12 in Al Taqa, Iraq, might have provided little solace.

But that sensitive gesture was long overdue, and fortunately Nevada is joining other states whose officials are stepping up to make similar statements to honor their war dead.

It’s impossible to write about an issue involving the American flag without making a political statement. Politics and patriotism are as much a part of the flag as its stars and stripes.

Some will look at this issue and call it an anti-war statement. Others will say it finally honors the fallen by placing an importance on a soldier’s life.

When Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm issued a statewide order to lower the flag for 24 hours to honor a soldier killed in Iraq, a certain amount of fallout was to be expected — especially because federal buildings didn’t follow suit.

Granholm noted the dichotomy. She had ordered flags to be lowered to half-staff 127 times as of June 19, according to The New York Times.

Michigan Congressman Bart Stupak in January introduced the Army Specialist Joseph P. Micks Federal Flag Code Amendment Act of 2007, which would give governors the authority to have flags, including those flying above federal buildings, lowered to half-staff to honor soldiers killed in combat. The bill has passed the Senate and awaits the president’s signature.

In Nevada, honoring fallen soldiers with a similar tribute at the state Capitol was on Gov. Jim Gibbons’ mind back when he took office in January, his press secretary, Melissa Subbotin, tells me. How to do so without violating the elaborate protocol codified by the 1942 U.S. Flag Code was Gibbons’ challenge.

“The line was very gray,” Subbotin says. “We erred on the side of being particularly cautious.”

The issue was grayer for some than others. After other governors began to lower flags at their capitols, and in some cases throughout the state, Gibbons felt the times were sufficiently changing, Subbotin says, and followed with an executive order.

“The governor believes it is not only necessary, but very appropriate in remembrance of our local heroes in the state,” she says. “We’re very pleased that the federal government is taking action on this. Hopefully, other states will also begin lowering their flags.”

Sgt. Schober was the first Nevada soldier to receive that sign of respect from this state, according to the governor’s office.

For local veteran Dan Russell, watching various flag controversies — the mega-Stars and Stripes at a Las Vegas car dealership is the latest — has left him embarrassed for his country and fellow soldiers. If lowering the flag to half-staff is good enough for the fallen students of Virginia Tech, then it ought to be good enough for any soldier who falls in defense of his country.

“I have no gripe with the people at Virginia Tech, God bless them,” Russell says. “They went through a horrible thing. But we’ve got 3,500 Americans dead and thousands of them maimed in this war. It shouldn’t be too much to ask to show them a little respect, too.”

It’s not just murdered college students. Fallen firefighters and police officers receive respect in the form of lowered flags.

Soldiers deserve no less a tribute.

Russell, 60, still gets steamed when he thinks of seeing no flags lowered to half-staff on Memorial Day, in large part because it’s a federal holiday.

“I think somebody needs to get on a soapbox and say, ‘Hey, no matter how you feel about the war, these guys went over there and fought for their country,'” Russell says. “They deserve respect, too.”

As for the mega-flags the size of clipper ship sails that wave above Towbin Hummer and the Terrible Herbst service stations, Russell says their owners should have a little class and lower their behemoths to half-staff, too.

“It would be a nice touch,” he says.

It’s a small thing, but it’s long overdue.

And if some people gripe that the American flag is being lowered too often, then maybe we’ll choose our wars more carefully.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 383-0295.

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