War hero wins battle over flagpole
Courtesy of The Washington Post
December 16, 2009
Great Flagpole Dispute of 2009 started last summer when Van T. Barfoot, a
retired Army colonel who single-handedly took on three Nazi tanks in World War
II, moved to the Sussex Square neighborhood near Richmond to be closer to his
daughter. Barfoot believes in flying the colors of the nation he loves, so he
erected a flagpole in his front yard.
Like thousands of developments across the country,
Sussex Square is governed by a homeowners association, which controls the
neighborhood's aesthetics. The association ordered Barfoot, a 90-year-old
Medal of Honor recipient, to remove his flagpole.
By the time the flagpole battle ended this week, after
threats of litigation, accusations of anti-Americanism and indignation that
spilled far beyond the development's boundaries to become fodder for a nation
of talking heads and blogging pundits, even Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D)
and the Obama administration had chimed in.
In the end, it took the combined forces of the American
Legion, members of Congress, untold numbers of sympathetic veterans and the
spokesman for the leader of the free world to persuade the homeowners
association to back off its threat to sue a war hero. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.)
finally brokered a deal that will allow Barfoot to keep his flagpole.
"All my life, from childhood to now, I have been
able to fly the flag," Barfoot told supporters standing outside his house
Wednesday. "In the time I have left, I plan to continue to fly the
American flag without interference."
The rules at Sussex Square are simple: "No
building, fence, flagpole, wall, improvement or other structure" may be
put up without the association's approval. Like the nearly 60 million
Americans who live in communities governed by homeowners associations, Barfoot
and his neighbors must seek approval before even painting their house a
Still, when Barfoot erected his 21-foot-tall flagpole,
said his attorney, John Honey, "he believed he was within his legal
The legalities quickly became secondary to the explosion
of outrage about what appeared to many to be a suppression of patriotism. After
the association ordered removal of the flagpole, Richmond area news outlets
reported on the controversy. Soon, there was a "We Support Col Van T.
Barfoot's (Ret) Effort To Fly The U.S. Flag" page on Facebook (as of
Wednesday: 48,000 members and counting). Outraged bloggers posted and tweeted
the name and phone number of the association's president, urging people to give
him an earful.
The American Legion issued a statement saying that the
homeowners association "underestimated the fight left in this elderly
veteran, and now they have to contend with the determination and persistence of
Col. Barfoot's 2.5 million friends in The American Legion."
Barfoot is known in Virginia for his wartime heroism and
his service in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. His Medal of Honor citation
credits his "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity" while fighting in
Italy in 1944. Barfoot took out two enemy machine gun perches, which led to the
surrender of a third. Later, he "took up an exposed position directly in
front of three advancing Mark VI tanks" and fired on one with a bazooka,
scaring the other two away. Earlier this year, Virginia's legislature named a
stretch of Route 16 the "Col. Van T. Barfoot Medal of Honor Highway."
So when news of the flagpole battle flared, officials
rallied around the war hero. Kaine said it was "ridiculous" that the
association was requiring Barfoot to take the flagpole down.
On Monday, during a briefing that dealt mainly with the
environment, the economy, health care and Afghanistan, White House press
secretary Robert Gibbs said he thought it was "silly" that Barfoot
"can't have a flagpole and show the proper respect and appreciation that
any flag deserves by flying that in their neighborhood."
And on Tuesday, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) introduced a
resolution seeking to allow Medal of Honor recipients "to properly display
the flag" on their property.
But the homeowners association said it never had a problem
with the flag -- residents may fly flags that are mounted to the sides of their
homes, and many do. The problem was with the pole. By requesting its removal,
the association said in a statement, it was "discharging its duty to all
the owners in the neighborhood." The request was "never intended . . .
as an affront to [Barfoot's] patriotism." Calls to the association
president were not returned.
The association's rules might seem overly burdensome, even
petty, to those who think property owners should be able to do as they wish on
their land. But such restrictions are common and are designed to "protect
property values, maintain the look and curb appeal of a community and to meet
the established expectations of the neighborhood," said Frank Rathbun,
spokesman for the Community Associations Institute.
Barfoot's fight was not the first time a homeowner has
clashed with an association over flags. In 2005, Congress passed a bill
sponsored by Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett (R-Md.) guaranteeing the right to fly a
flag in communities governed by homeowners associations, as long as residents do
so in accordance with association rules.
Hedleston, who lives two doors down from Barfoot, called him a "lovely
gentleman" and said she has no objection to the flagpole. She said
residents told the association board that if it didn't approve Barfoot's
request, "this is going to get national attention and we're going to be
considered jerks and very unpatriotic. And that's what happened."