In a unanimous vote, the Berks County Commissioners on Aug. 28 approved a resolution to fly the Prisoner of War/Missing in Action (POW/MIA) flag on all county properties where the American flag already flies.Sovereign Bank donated $1,012.60 for the county to purchase 11 flags to fly over county-owned properties year-round. Currently the flags fly on the six national holidays designated by the U.S. Veteran's Administration.
"To me, this is democracy working at its best. I don't think there's a veteran in Berks County that cannot say we don't have the best veteran's department in the country," said Master Sargent Larry D. Cohen, of the Berks County Chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America following the vote.
Previously, tensions ran high at the Aug. 26 workshop meeting when commissioners sparred with veterans and each other over the issue.
Commissioner Christian Y. Leinbach had proposed the resolution in order to revise the current policy of flying the flag on the six federally designated holidays: Armed Forces Day, Memorial Day, Flag Day, Independence Day, POW/MIA Day and Veteran's Day.
He cited the need to recognize the men and women who have served our country honorably and have not returned home from military service.
"The flag is in existence because there were those who still believed there were prisoners of war. The flag tells every soldier that when they are sent into harms' way, they will not be forgotten," said Cohen who was one of several veterans to speak at the Aug. 26 workshop.
He also noted that, besides the American flag, the POW/MIA flag is the only one officially recognized by the U.S. government.
"There is no reason to fly this flag only on certain holidays; we don't remember our loved ones only on certain holidays. We appreciate them and our freedoms every day," Cohen said.
He asked commissioners to consider their local, county-wide efforts to fly the flag as a grass-roots movement and the first step toward encouraging the federal government to do the same.
Leinbach called for an immediate voice vote at the Aug. 26 session, but Chairman Mark C. Scott demurred, noting the resolution had yet to be formalized.
Scott also questioned why the local government was taking more of an interest in the flag issue than the federal government, which, he noted, has not mandated the daily flying of the POW/MIA flag.
When Commissioner Kevin Barnhardt asked to be heard on the issue at the same meeting, things became heated.
Barnhardt said his main concern with the resolution was the possible perceived inequity to other groups in the county, such as Mothers Against Drunk Drivers and Years of Tears. He said these groups and others were likely to want the same recognition, and said flying the flag daily might be met with protest.
"Those other groups have people to speak for them," said Veteran Robert Howell, Commander of Chapter 10 of the Disabled American Veterans.
When Barnhardt attempted to reiterate his position, Howell stopped him.
"Do not interrupt me while I am speaking, please," Howell said.
"I, as a member of the board of commissioners, need to respect those organizations such as MADD even if you do not," Barnhardt had responded.
When the Aug. 28 meeting was called to order, Leinbach first offered an apology to the community, his fellow commissioners, and a county staff member he had chastised on Aug. 26.
"I have tremendous respect for my colleagues and I'm an intense individual," Leinbach said. "I believe things strongly and in preparation for Tuesday's meeting I looked at one side of the situation and as a result I blind-sided [the commissioners] with something they weren't prepared for. That was wrong, and I apologize. I'm not wrong on the issue but I was definitely wrong in the way I went about supporting that issue."
After the Aug. 26 meeting, Barnhardt issued a statement.
"In reality, I simply voiced a concern to my colleagues about how this policy may be interpreted by any of the other citizen's groups who regularly lobby for flags, banners, fliers or demonstrations on county property, and who are regularly denied. I was not attempting to make an apples-to-oranges comparison, just offer a concern to the board should we approve the flags beyond the federally-approved allotment," he said.
"I know all three of the commissioners have a strong regard for our veterans and I don't think there's any need to outmatch the other with regard to patriotism," said Scott before the vote.
Scott realized the importance of the flag to local veterans after a long conversation with his father.
After the meeting, Barnhardt said his change-of-heart came about through talk with others, particularly Cohen, that by flying the flag, the county would be part of a grass-roots effort that may have nationwide implications. "It was the right thing to do," he said.