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War hero's flag campaign a fight for U.S. moral fiber
Seattle Times Washington bureau
When four scruffy protesters burned an American flag outside Seattle's Broadway post office nearly 10 years ago, Pat Brady was 2,500 miles away in an office in the Pentagon, serving out the last years of a glorious military career.
He didn't notice the news accounts out of Seattle, his longtime home. When you've survived the Viet Cong riddling your helicopter with 400 bullet holes in a single day, the rantings of a few 20-somethings can seem a bit remote.
But the flag torched that night, and the debate that still swirls around it, has come to dominate Brady's life in the 1990s almost as much as Vietnam did in the 1960s.
The two-star Army general from Lake Tapps in Pierce County is on a crusade to save the American flag. He's supposed to be retired, but he often works seven days a week. He's racked up 400,000 frequent-flier miles since 1994, plugging the importance of the flag in nearly every state. He visits Congress constantly, urging politicians to back a 17-word constitutional amendment designed to protect the flag.
The group he heads, the Citizens Flag Alliance, has spent more than $17 million on a lobbying and advertising campaign dating to 1994. It is an alliance made up of 140 organizations with more than 20 million members. Its goal is to undo a U.S. Supreme Court decision that said those four Seattle protesters had a free-speech right to burn that flag.
This summer, Congress is expected to vote for the fourth time since 1990 on the proposed amendment. If the vote were held today - Flag Day - the amendment would lose, again, by a handful of votes.
Brady, 62, knows this. Some say the chance to protect the flag from being burned and ripped and defecated upon is slipping away forever.
But he is unconcerned. And he dismisses those who say his quest is curious and quixotic. All that time, energy and emotion to try to stop something that rarely happens. When someone does burn a flag, nothing tangible is damaged, his critics say. So why all the fuss?
Because, Brady said, his movement is not about fabric, it's about fiber. The moral kind that he saw around him every day on the battlefields.
"What's gone wrong with this country is not tangible - it's spiritual," Brady said. "Stopping flag burning has a greater meaning. It will say something again about what is right and wrong. It will begin to return a moral basis to our laws."
Then he borrows from the language of the Vietnam era, when it was said to be important to stop communism there or risk the erosion of freedom everywhere.
"I see flag burning as just another visible domino in the devaluing of America."
`Not just a piece of cloth'
Pat Brady has never seen a flag being burned - not in America; not in Berlin, where he was stationed in 1961; and not in Vietnam, where he was one of the best medical rescue helicopter pilots ever to serve in the U.S. military.
But many times he's seen flags wrapped around corpses. There's one image he can't get out of his head. There was a sergeant in Vietnam, a voice over the radio who frequently guided Brady's helicopter through fog or darkness to safe clearings in the Mekong Delta.
When he was aloft at night behind enemy lines, the cockpit pitch-black so as not to attract fire, Brady clung to the man's voice like a security blanket.
One day, there was a new voice on the radio. Brady landed to ask about his friend and was pointed to a body lying nearby.
"I don't think I ever knew his name, just his radio call number," Brady said. "But at that time, he meant everything to me. He was in a body bag, and they had draped an American flag over him. It was the highest form of respect. When you see friends die and then wrapped in the flag, you begin to realize that the flag is not just a piece of cloth. It's a sacred shroud."
When Brady discusses his Vietnam history before Congress, the most ardent opponents of the flag-burning amendment are left temporarily speechless.
In one memorable day in Chu Lai, he flew through rain squalls into a firefight to haul out 51 injured soldiers, losing three helicopters that day to enemy fire. In two years, Brady personally rescued more than 5,000 people, believed to be one of the highest totals in U.S. military history. He was decorated with the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Brady is one of the most persistent humans on the planet, said a boyhood friend from Seattle, Terry Marcell, the director of the First Avenue Service Center, a Seattle homeless shelter.
"He can certainly get people's attention, both by the heroism of his own life story and just his sheer force of will," Marcell said.
Brady has led a fund-raising campaign for the homeless shelter, recently raising $230,000. He also is a regent for Seattle University and serves on the foundation for O'Dea High School.
Other war heroes oppose him
But recently there has been a dynamic in the flag fight that Brady acknowledges has hurt his campaign. A number of highly decorated veterans have forcefully spoken out against it.
Most damaging to the amendment's momentum: In April, one of the top military heroes of all, former senator and astronaut John Glenn, denounced the amendment in a Senate hearing.
"Those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, who died following that banner, did not give up their lives for a red, white and blue piece of cloth," Glenn said. "It would be a hollow victory indeed if we preserved the symbol of our freedoms by chipping away at those fundamental freedoms themselves."
Glenn had voted against the amendment when he was a senator but had not been outspoken about it. This spring, a number of other veterans joined Glenn, and the effect has been significant, said Catherine LeRoy, director of public policy for People for the American Way, one of the lead civil-rights groups opposing the amendment.
"These are people with war careers every bit as illustrious as Brady's," she said. "In Congress, it has been crucial. It has dispelled the notion that one side has a monopoly on patriotism."
Focusing efforts on children
Back at Lake Tapps, Brady is planning what to do next. Order No. 1: Never give up. He may not have a monopoly on patriotism, but he can try to have one on desire. By way of illustrating that he's in for the long haul, he declares that adults are irrelevant to the debate. "The adults have all made up their minds," he said. "What matters to me are the children."
He discovered this, he said, when he helped lead a futile protest in 1996 against a Phoenix art exhibit that included a flag stuffed in a toilet and a flag placed on the floor with an invitation for visitors to step on it.
While the adults argued about the appropriateness of the exhibit, two kids from Indiana ducked under the ropes to grab the flag off the floor.
Brady spends a great deal of time flying around the country honoring kids who admire the flag and trying to teach kids what the flag means.
Last year, he judged thousands of student essays on the meaning of the flag, and his group gave the 10 winners $57,000 in scholarships.
He said he has no animosity toward flag burners: "They are just young people who have not been properly taught," he said. He doesn't think they should be jailed, just fined and given a course in civic responsibility.
Whatever contempt he has is reserved for "the elites": the media, college professors and, most of all, justices like the five on the Supreme Court who he said "fabricated" a right to burn the flag.
One professor, Robert Goldstein of Oakland University in Michigan, often points out that more than twice as many flags have been burned since Congress tried to outlaw flag burning in 1989 than were burned in the previous 213 years of America's history.
This statement is supposed to imply that flag-protection advocates are trying to solve a problem that doesn't exist. But Brady sees it as evidence that what he fought for in Vietnam is fraying.
"Whenever I go back to Congress, somebody there says that you can't legislate morality or patriotism," he said. "But why not? What are our laws if not morality in action? Why shouldn't our laws reflect the values of the majority of the people?
"That's what this is really about: the people. I think most people feel there is something missing at the core of America, something vital that we used to have. We're not forcing anyone to revere the flag. We're just saying the views of a few rogue judges can't outweigh the will of the people.
"I'm not out here on this by myself. Until the people say, `It's OK to burn the flag,' I'm going to work to win this.
"And if they ever do say it's OK to burn the flag, I'd probably move to Ireland, because I wouldn't want to be part of this country anymore."
© 1999, by The Seattle Times Company
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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