To the N.H. families of those who have served and died, an official flag is needed

  • Bill Marston of Concord, whose son Blake was killed during a training accident three years ago. RAY DUCKLER—Monitor staff

  • The Marston family holds the Honor and Remember flag at the Red Blazer last Sunday. RAY DUCKLER—Monitor staff

  • The Honor and Remember Flag flies over the New Hampshire State Veterans Cemetery in Boscawen. RAY DUCKLER—Monitor staff

  • The Honor and Remember flag, which some hope will be recognized by the state of New Hampshire, is displayed at the Red Blazer in Concord on Sunday, April 29, 2018. RAY DUCKLER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 5/1/2018 5:54:31 PM

To the families and friends who had lunch at the Red Blazer restaurant last Sunday, this was a no-brainer.

Their sons and brothers had died serving their country. Some had gotten blown up by roadside bombs, a common death sentence during operations in the Middle East.

Six personalized, folded flags lined a table at the front of the banquet room. Each flag included a name for a fallen fighter written in script along the bottom. Each showed the design of the Honor and Remember flag – a cream-colored star centering a red background – and a crisply folded portion of the American flag below the star.

The people I met Sunday, however, wanted more. They wanted official sanctioning of this flag by the Granite State itself.

“The state should adopt it and recognize what it stands for and nothing more,” said John Garabrant of Amherst. “This would be another representation for families who have lost members. They don’t need to overthink it.”

“They” refers to lawmakers who say the Honor and Remember flag should not be part of the official landscape that honors our war dead. We’ve got the American flag, the state flag, the POW/MIA flag, they say.

Isn’t that enough?

Not to some. Not for people like Garabrant. His son, Brandon, a Marine, was killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in June 2014.

John was a man of few words, somewhat intimidating, with a buzz cut and stern look. Then, as the lunchtime crowd finished eating, Brandon’s background was read from a lectern at the front of the spacious room. The presentation of that controversial flag drew closer, and John closed his right hand and tucked it hard into the palm of his left hand, then rested his chin on both.

He had lost that stare by then, the one that alternated between blank and mad. Instead, his eyes turned soft and sad, grief so painfully obvious, and it was apparent that the father was trying to control himself, stay strong, never flinch, never let those tears fall.

Galabrant didn’t move from that position through the entire speech, until he got up from the table and was handed the flag made for Brandon.

That was lunch. Along with the meatballs and the salad and the pasta were photo ops for people whose smiles were juxtaposed with red eyes and shaky lips.

“We have stated as a family that our son’s name will be spoken each and every day for as long as we live,” said Bill Marston of Concord, whose son, Navy Seal Blake Marston, was killed in a training accident three years ago. “We have a very close family. Some are here today.”

Blake’s niece, 25-year-old Kaley Marston, said her uncle was a role model, a physically imposing figure with a gentle nature.

“I keep him tucked in the back of my mind on a daily basis,” Kaley told me. “During work when something is going really wrong, or I’m having a hard time, I just think of him, and he kind of helps me through.”

The Marstons and the Garabrants and the other families honored are free to fly their personalized flags whenever they please, out front of their homes or out back. Maybe fold it neatly and display it on the fireplace mantel.

But does that properly honor what these people have done since those planes crashed on Sept. 11, 2001? In fact, shouldn’t an officially sanctioned state flag of this nature fly in honor of every person killed in every war since the Union was born?

That’s the purpose here. That’s the message.

“The POW flag honors those who have been POWs or who are missing,” said Mike Couto of Rye Beach, president of the New Hampshire Chapter of Honor and Remember Inc. “All we’re doing with this flag is honoring those who have given their life.”

So what’s the issue here? What do lawmakers have against what appears to be a noble and just cause?

The name that came up, over and over, was Rep. Al Baldasaro of Londonderry, the lawmaker and 22-year Marine veteran who uses no filter when speaking to the press. That rubs some the wrong way, and in this case, Baldasaro is rubbing, hard.

“We die by the American flag and fight by the American flag,” Baldasaro told me by phone. “So when a body comes home, it is draped in the American flag.”

Baldasaro doesn’t like that the company that makes these flags profits from them. He doesn’t like the fact that the Honor and Remember flag looks similar to both the Vietnam and Vietcong flags.

And he doesn’t like the prospect of other groups emerging to claim their place in the community of official state flags.

“It’s an individual flag; fly it at home,” Baldasaro told me. “God bless the warrior who made the sacrifice, but they should not be represented as a state flag.”

The flag flies 24/7 at the State Veterans Cemetery in Boscawen. It stands at the end of the Memorial Walkway, near the Reflecting Pool.

That’s what Mike Horne, the cemetery’s executive director, agreed to do, but he knows this is a hot issue, one that has been voted down by the Legislature in the past, but isn’t going away anytime soon.

“I understand both sides,” Horne said by phone. “It’s hard with all the veterans groups. There are a whole bunch of categories and that’s why we give awards, and if we break down all the special categories, where do we stop?

“Lines have to drawn, and there are people on both sides of the line.”

Jean Durgin of Henniker has two feet dug deeply on one side, the side that calls for passage of a bill that makes this flag an official flag.

Durgin was at the luncheon to read who these men were and how they died. Her son, Russell Durgin, was killed after his unit took smalls arms fire in Afghanistan in June of 2006.

And a few years after George Lutz, whose own son was killed in Iraq, introduced this idea to honor the state’s war dead in 2008, Durgin has been out front, leading the charge, speaking at gatherings, pushing lawmakers, then pushing them again.

“The Honor and Remember flag is specific to those who have given their lives in this cause,” Durgin said. “Perhaps because I’m a mother of one of them, I don’t want him forgotten. I don’t want him set aside.”

Durgin’s pasta and meatballs were getting cold, but she would have answered questions about this issue until the cows came home. She appears regularly at banquets, ceremonies, schools – anyplace she can make sure people remember what her son and others have done.

Asked for her thoughts on Baldasaro, Durgin laughed.

“I’m glad he’s not in my shoes,” she said.

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304, or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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