Flag wrapped up in dispute over Montrose antiwar protests

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

When Roberta Medford retired after 38 years as a UCLA librarian, she decided to devote much of her time to ending the Iraq war.

She’d fought against Vietnam too -- another senseless and costly war, in her opinion. Never again, she said, did she think she would see a White House use war as a first resort, as an instrument of foreign policy, and sell it to the public with lies. “How could everyone forget so soon?” she asked.

When Bill Dodson retired after 31 years with the Glendale Fire Department, he decided to devote much of his time to taking care of a local war memorial, ringed with snapdragons and affixed with the names of 19 local servicemen killed during Vietnam.

He’d fought in World War II, firing so many shells from a Navy carrier that he still can’t hear well out of one ear. Never again, he said, did he think he would see protesters dishonoring dead American soldiers.

“Unless you’ve been there,” he said, “you can’t understand that.”

Medford, 60, and Dodson, 83, live in the same little village, Montrose. They are not as unalike as they think -- she says she is no pacifist; he says he is no hawk -- but they have never met. This evening, their lives will intersect, as they do every Friday.

As shadows creep through the folds of the nearby Verdugo Mountains, Medford will arrive at the main intersection in town, carrying a bag of signs -- one that says “STOP THE WAR NOW,” another that says “WAR,” with a red line through it.

She’ll distribute them to 15 or 20 or so people who have held weekly peace vigils at Honolulu Avenue and Ocean View Boulevard for two years. Then she’ll assume her spot, on the corner, flashing a peace sign when passing drivers honk their support.

Dodson will already have come and gone.

Every week, he stages a silent protest of his own, lowering the American flag that flies the rest of the time from a 45-foot flagpole that serves as the centerpiece of the little memorial at that same intersection. He folds the flag up, drives it home and then -- after the protesters have gone -- returns and puts it back up.

So who is right?

Maybe Medford, who believes she and the other organizers of the vigil are performing an act of patriotism by lobbying to bring troops home from an unjust war.

Maybe Dodson, who believes he is performing an act of patriotism by protecting a memorial that he views as sacred ground -- not a grave, he says, but close enough.

Or maybe things haven’t changed a bit since 1968. That’s when the memorial went up. In Vietnam, the Tet offensive was raging. In California, radios were blaring with a Buffalo Springfield song that seemed to address the divisiveness of war. “Nobody’s right,” the song said, “if everybody’s wrong.”

In the fall of 2005, Medford got an e-mail from an organization called Progressive Democrats of America, urging its members to start peace vigils to mark a grim milestone: the death of the 2,000th American service member in Iraq. Medford picked the corner with the war memorial, and she picked it on purpose.

“I truly meant no disrespect,” she said. “I truly think that the best way to support the troops is to not send them -- again -- on a futile mission.”

Montrose has long been rock-ribbed conservative and, perhaps as a result, the vigil instantly became a source of great fascination -- and consternation.

“I started getting phone calls from merchants saying: ‘What’s going on?’ ” said Glendale Mayor John Drayman, also a dues-paying member of the local business association because he owns a nearby photo conservation and restoration shop. Montrose is part unincorporated Los Angeles County and part city of Glendale. The memorial is in Glendale.

“It was kind of a shock to the body of consciousness up there,” Drayman said.

Bill Dodson wasn’t going to stand for it.

Twenty years ago, the memorial’s volunteer caretaker was getting old and frail and asked Dodson to take over. Ever since, Dodson has helped ensure that the flowers remain fresh, that the flag is replaced when it frays in the wind.

Dodson had served four years in the Navy, sailing off Guam, the Philippines and the Marshall and Gilbert islands. Some of his buddies died at the hands of kamikaze pilots. That’s all he has to say about that, he said. Both his sons were in Vietnam, one an Air Force pilot, the other a heavy-artillery officer.

He seems conflicted about the war in Iraq.

“We’re there,” he said, “and we’ve got to finish what we started.”

But that’s not the point, he said; his beef is with the protesters’ choice of venue.

“These people have the right to protest. I don’t dispute that,” he said. “But they picked the wrong corner. . . . This flag is here to honor the names of these men. Yes, the flag belongs to everyone. But it basically belongs to the names on that memorial.”

He began taking down the flag not long after the vigil began.

“You can’t reason with these people,” he said.

Last fall, a Northridge resident named Carrie Watson stopped by one Friday with her two children, not to join the vigil but to protest it. She stood on the other side of the intersection holding a sign that said “I SUPPORT MY MARINE’S MISSION IN IRAQ.” Her husband, Mike Watson, 38, an LAPD officer and a reserve Marine, was serving his third tour in Iraq at the time; he recently returned to California.

Soon, members of local American Legion and VFW posts heard that Carrie Watson, 35, was standing out there alone, and they began to join her each week, most bringing large American flags. The antiwar protesters started hearing the insults they thought they had left behind: “socialists,” “communists,” even “baby killers.” Someone threw water balloons at them.

Eventually, they decided enough was enough. They wanted the flag back.

“We do love our country,” said Paige Eaves, 45, a protester and the pastor of Crescenta Valley United Methodist Church. “That’s why we want the flag.”

Earlier this year, the protesters appealed to Glendale City Hall.

According to Drayman, the memorial and the flag are in a public right-of-way -- between the sidewalk and the curb -- but were not built using public money and are not owned by the city.

The decision about the flag, he said, is up to the Montrose Shopping Park Assn., which was given control over the administration of the memorial years ago.

And the association, the mayor said, has decided that the flag should not fly during any public demonstration, unless it’s related to Vietnam or veterans. “The issue is not a constitutional one,” Drayman said. “It’s a jurisdictional one.”

The antiwar protesters don’t agree, but for now that’s how it’s going to be: The flag will go down, the vigil will go on and then the flag will go back up.

And if you think that’s that, you weren’t there last week, when, about an hour into the vigil, a teenager walked by, cleared his sinuses and spat mucus at the protesters.

Zach Fuhr, 17, a junior at La Salle High School in Pasadena, was on a date and was holding hands with a girl. He said his family had a long history of serving in the military and that he would enlist soon.

“They are inappreciative and unsupportive and ungrateful,” he said. “You have no right to say anything unless you’re a veteran.”

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