Tavares veteran's flipped flag riles neighbors

Unrest, Conflicts and WarDefenseArmed ForcesPoliticsHuman InterestCensorshipJustice System

Instant disgust erupted as word raced through the community of veterans at Royal Harbor, aTavares retirement development: Someone is flying the American flag upside down.

Displaying Old Glory with the stars at the bottom is a universal symbol of dire distress under conditions of "extreme danger" to life or property.

Although things don't seem too terribly hazardous in the lovely gated community of neat homes on the north end of Little Lake Harris, Jim Marschke, a 78-year-old Navy veteran himself, has a different view.

"I'm in extreme distress. What is going on in this world, you can't ignore. The current administration causes me great concern and distress. My family, the young people — everyone in the United States of America is in distress.

"This is my own personal way of showing that I'm in distress. I mean no disrespect to the flag," said Marschke, who said he served in the Navy for four years and left as a 3rd Class sonar man. "I didn't intend to hurt anybody."

"I love that flag. I love my country."

Marschke said he has tried to talk with his elected officials about conditions in the nation, but he got no response. That's why he's flying the flag upside down.

Unfortunately, no great horde of elected officials pass Marschke's house in the gated community, which requires guests to have a code for entry. So, the only people who see the flag and react to it are folks who live there.

The veterans who live a couple of streets away don't understand how someone who served in their country's military could demean an American flag by using it to express a political opinion. The country's symbol, they said, ought to be above that kind of use.

'Total disrespect' of flag

Pete Theis, a 69-year-old former Navy lieutenant junior grade, called Marschke and asked if he was aware the flag was upside down. Of course he was.

"I asked, 'Why are you disrespecting our flag?' and he started yelling. The conversation deteriorated rapidly from there," said Theis, whose wife is also a Navy veteran. "I'm not sure who hung up first."

Theis and other members of Royal Harbor's veterans association feel a deep emotional connection with the American flag. To them, it carries with it the grandeur of the nation, the essence of freedom, the lives of many killed over the years defending a way of life and a democratic nation.

Mike Hanst, 66, who served in the Navy for 30 years, said the most impressive moment of his career came when he was chosen as the president's representative at the burial of a retired officer at Arlington National Cemetery. The ceremony involved full dress and all military honors.

"I was the one that took the flag and handed it to the widow on behalf of the president. It's hard not to cry thinking about it," Hanst said.

"That flag is more than a piece of rag."

Former Army Capt. Ed Branch, 56, said he joined the Miami Police Department and its honor guard after he left the service. After a while, the grief he continually witnessed became too much and he left the honor guard.

"When I found out this guy was flying the flag upside down, I said, 'What is the address?' I went by there and, sure enough, the flag was flapping in the wind. I almost got out of my car …" Branch said, trailing off.

"It's just disrespect, total disregard of the flag of this country."

Other vets in Royal Harbor don't see it that way.

Marschke's neighbors Richard Bradstreet, 65, who served in the Navy Seabees, and 68-year-old Army helicopter pilot Jim Krull, both Vietnam vets, both said they would not display the flag upside down. But they support Marschke's right to do so.

"My belief is we have freedom of speech in this country. This is a form of freedom of speech, and he has the right to do it," said Krull, who was disabled in Vietnam when a shell pierced a bunker and exploded, wounding him and killing the young pilot next to him. "I do like it flown properly and displayed properly, but I also respect a person's right to freedom of speech."

The vets who want the flag flown properly also understand that Marschke can't be forced to do it. They just don't like it.

Earlier upside-down flag flap

So, there you have it. A standoff.

Perhaps the little story that follows can offer a solution.

Few people in Central Florida will remember the family of Grover Walker.

For more than two decades, the Winter Park home of the Walkers was virtually a shrine for upside-down U.S. flags. The house even was painted as an upside-down flag in 1978.

Walker's protest began when the Air Force kicked him out in 1966 after 25 years of service, mostly in sensitive intelligence operations. They falsely labeled him as mentally ill and paranoid because he traced leaks of information and believed that some of his superior officers were Russian spies. And who knows? Maybe they were.

Aside from dozens of flags displayed at the family home, the protest included stamping messages on thousands of dollar bills that have found their way across the country and staging demonstrations and disturbances at the house to get attention.

For a while, Walker and his seven children had a 90-foot flagpole in the front yard, and the noisy protests often included readings of the Constitution over a bullhorn from a platform atop the pole.

Neighbors didn't enjoy this process, and family members sometimes were arrested during the protests.

Orange County threatened to levy huge fines because the giant flagpole violated county codes. When the county finally threatened to seize the home for failure to pay the fines, family members declared they would fill it to the rafters with concrete. These are folks who would have done it, too.

Walker sued county officials in federal court, claiming they violated his rights. In 1989, a federal judge ruled that deputy sheriffs had violated Walker's right to free expression by forcibly turning his flag upright. But rather than the $80 million Walker sought, the judge awarded him just $1.

Flags righted after terror attacks

The protests were still rocking along when the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks changed everything for the Walkers.

Grover Walker and his wife were visiting near Washington, D.C., when the terrorists took down the towers in New York City, attacked the Pentagon and crashed a plane into a Pennsylvania pasture.

Walker was watching television accounts when he suffered a heart attack and was rushed to a Washington hospital, where he underwent emergency bypass surgery.

When he awoke, he consulted with his kids in Central Florida. Working with floodlights long after midnight, the Walker children repainted the Winter Park house to put the giant flag right side up. American flags all over the property were righted.

James Walker, one of Grover's sons, said at the time, "We all decided that we should turn all our flags right side up and show our unity against this terrorism."

Unity against this terrorism…

Sunday marks the 10th anniversary of the attacks. Perhaps Marschke has made his point and, like Walker, would put aside his personal grievance in favor of a bigger statement — one that says we Americans stand together and won't give up our nation, flawed as it is, without a fight.

For those who are wondering, the Air Force, though it honorably discharged Walker, never apologized. He survived the hasty heart surgery in 2001 and came home. After a long illness, Grover Walker died in 2005 at age 84. He remained, to the end, either a courageous patriot or a complete kook, depending on your point of view.

He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Lritchie@tribune.com Her blog is online at http://www.orlandosentinel.com/laurenonlake.

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