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'Honor' flag for veterans fuels debate

New Hampshire Sunday News

May 12. 2013 2:41AM
Stephanie Ouellette and her mom, Donna, from Manchester, hold the flag for their brother and son Cpl Michael Ouellette during the Honor and Remember flag presentation ceremony, held at the Red Blazer in Concord, on Saturday. (Thomas Roy/Union Leader)

A proposal for the state to adopt the "Honor and Remember" flag, commemorating service members who died for their country, is dividing veterans advocates who are usually staunch allies.

New Hampshire Blue Star Mothers and Gold Star families are among the groups asking the Legislature to pass Senate Bill 88, which would adopt the commemorative flag as the state "emblem" of the service and sacrifice of fallen troops.

The bill has passed the Senate; the House State-Federal Relations and Veterans Affairs Committee will hold a public hearing on Thursday at 10 a.m.

A similar proposal failed last year. SB 88's sponsor, Sen. Jeanie Forrester, R-Meredith, said she promised former Sen. Jack Barnes of Raymond, who pushed for adopting the flag last session, to bring it back this year.

"It's a very touching tribute to those folks who have lost loved ones in battle," she said.

The bill proposes flying the Honor and Remember flag daily at the New Hampshire State Veterans Cemetery in Boscawen and above the State House on five patriotic holidays and whenever there is a New Hampshire casualty. The designated holidays are: Gold Star Mothers Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, National POW/MIA Recognition Day and Veterans Day.

Susan Peterson, vice president of New Hampshire Blue Star Mothers, got involved in promoting the Honor and Remember flag two years ago after she heard a radio interview with its creator, the father of a soldier killed in Iraq.

Peterson has started a New Hampshire chapter of the nonprofit Honor and Remember Foundation, which raises funds to purchase personalized flags for Gold Star families. "I want these families to know that we will always remember and honor the fallen," she said.

But the New Hampshire State Veterans Advisory Committee, which includes representatives of 15 veterans service organizations, recently voted to oppose SB 88.

Peter Burdett chairs that group. The committee, he said, "focused on the fact that we have a perfectly good flag that drapes our coffins and receives our attention at holidays without having another one."

Burdett said he's "all for" people flying the Honor and Remember flag at their homes. "But I'm not so sure we need to confuse the folks of the state of New Hampshire with having it hoisted over the State House on particular days ...?."

"We've got a flag for the 4th of July. It's called the Stars and Stripes, and we really don't need another flag," Burdett said.

The family of Mark Decoteau and other Gold Star families disagree.

Decoteau's 19-year-old son, Army Spc. Marc Paul Decoteau, was killed in Afghanistan on Jan. 29, 2010, shot to death by his Afghan interpreter. On Memorial Day in 2011, the Decoteau family was presented a personalized Honor and Remember flag during a memorial run in Plymouth, where the son they call "Marc Paul" had attended high school.

"It has really meant a lot to us," Decoteau said. "It's been another symbol of the community support for our family."

The town of Waterville Valley, where Mark Decoteau is town manager, has wrapped the family in its collective arms since the soldier's death. The town flies Marc Decoteau's Honor and Remember flag on a new flagpole at the elementary school each year on his birthday, Sept. 2, and on Jan. 29, according to his father.

The flag bears Marc Paul's name and rank and the date he was killed. "So it's a very personalized thing for our family," Decoteau said. "And it's been good for our community."

The senior Decoteau, a 1983 West Point graduate, said he thinks opposition to the Honor and Remember flag is based on misperceptions.

"We understand in no way it's meant to replace the American flag," he said. "Marc Paul would not have wanted that. We don't want that as a family.

"But it is a symbol that we have to help us remember him."

Forrester said the Honor and Remember flag, which would fly on the flagpole beneath the state flag on designated days, "closes the circle." She likened it to the POW/MIA flag that honors those held as prisoners of war or missing in action.

"This is ... for those folks who have died," she said. "It doesn't replace the U.S. flag, and it's for the families.

"It's about honoring the people who've lost their lives in battle to protect our freedoms."

But Burdett said the POW/MIA flag is different; it's recognized in the U.S. Flag Code. If the Honor and Remember flag were to be likewise recognized, he said, "we'll reassess."

The Honor and Remember flag features gold and blue stars, a folded flag and an eternal flame on fields of red - symbolizing the blood spilled - and white - symbolizing "the purity of (their) sacrifice."

Yesterday in Concord, four Gold Star families were presented Honor and Remember flags during a luncheon honoring their sacrifice.

The flags were given to the families of Marine Cpl. Michael Ouellette, killed March 22, 2009; Army 2nd Lt. Matthew Coutu, June 27, 2005; Marine Lance Cpl. Peter J. Sora Jr., May 4, 2004; and Senior Chief Petty Officer Daniel Healy, a Navy SEAL, June 28, 2005.

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