HARTFORD, Conn. — Former U.S. Marine Matthew Bowman gets choked up when he thinks about how his fellow Marines were treated when they returned home from being captured as prisoners of war in Vietnam.
“Part of my duties as a Marine, unfortunately, were as a security detail for our returning POWs in North Vietnam,” Bowman said. “To say they weren’t treated well is an understatement. What they went through was crazy.”
Bowman, who lives in Cheshire, is now protesting the removal of the POW/MIA flag from town property, a decision the town said was made in accordance with its flag policy.
“The first article of the code of conduct is I am an American fighting man and I serve in our forces which guard my country and our way of life,” Bowman said. “The most important word there is our way of life. Not my way, not your way, but our way of life.”
The decision to remove the flag was made in June under a policy that prohibits the town from flying any flags other than the U.S. flag, state flag, or town flag on town-owned property with a few exceptions. The town allows for the POW/MIA flag to be flown only on town property designated as a veteran memorial.
“The Department of Public Works, police, and fire departments have all flown the POW/MIA flag fairly regularly before, but because of this policy, the flags had to come down in those locations,” said town council member Jim Jinks. “The only location designated a veteran memorial is the town hall flagpole.”
The POW/MIA flag, first introduced in the 1970s, represents the tens of thousands of U.S. military members who were captured or went missing in action. More than 81,000 Americans are listed as missing from World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and the Gulf Wars, according to the Department of Defense.
“Removing the POW/MIA flag means you have forgotten what it stands for. The POW/MIA flag is a reminder for every American of the U.S. servicemember’s devotion to duty, sacrificing everything to keep our people and democracy safe, and the fates of over 81,000 who were never accounted for and remain missing in action. They are not, and never will be forgotten,” said Jeffrey Falk, commander VFW Post 10052, and Donald Falk, commander American Legion Post 92 in a joint statement.
But the town has said it implemented its flag policy to protect against unnecessary lawsuits. Cheshire, like many other communities across the state, passed a strict flag policy in response to the 2022 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. The court found that the city of Boston violated a private organization’s First Amendment rights by refusing to raise a Christian flag outside of Boston City Hall since other flags had been flown in the past and no clear governing policy was in place. The town has also banned the LGBTQ+ Pride flag from being flown on town-owned property, saying the town’s flagpoles are not intended to serve as a forum for free expression.
“The council, nine of us, in no way intended to offend or abuse the dignity of the missing in action. What I will pledge to do is revisit this with a more fulsome understanding of where the expectations lay for their placement that doesn’t stray too far from what the intention of our policy was,” Chairman Tim Slocum said at a previous council meeting.
Bowman and several other veterans spoke on the issue during the public comment section at Tuesday’s council meeting to protest what they are calling inaction by the town. In addition, because the flag policy was passed by a resolution and not ordinance, the town did not originally hold a public hearing on it.
“Like with everything that has to do with town business, it has to be transparent,” said Jeffrey Falk, commander VFW Post 10052 .“People should be notified and have a chance to speak out whether they’re for or against it.”
Bowman said that he would like to see the town turn each flagpole at the DPW, fire station, and police department into a veteran memorial dedicated to the town’s service members who served or were killed in action. The Vietnam era veteran said he has even offered to raise the money to pay for the plaques at each flagpole.
“The first police chief here in Cheshire, John McNamara, was a Silver Star Recipient from World War II,” Bowman said. “So I asked the town if we can name the flagpole in his honor and therefore we would bypass this policy to fly the flag there. I would also like to fly a POW/MIA flag at the firehouse. Harvey Barnum Jr., a member of the fire department, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor during Vietnam. Couldn’t we put a plaque for him there and fly the flag there?”
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