Veterans tussle over upside down American flag at war protest

Confrontation ends peacefully as men fold Old Glory

03/20/2008 4:58 AM

09/10/2009 4:38 PM

An emotional confrontation near an anti-war protest in Modesto threatened to turn violent Wednesday, but the two military veterans arguing over how a flag was being displayed decided détente was the sensible option.

In the end, both men went in peace.

About 80 people came together around 5 p.m. to protest the war in Iraq at Five Points, the junction of J Street and McHenry Avenue.

The demonstration put on by the Modesto Peace Life Center and the Network of Spiritual Progressives fell on the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It was an effort to end the war and bring the troops home, said the Peace Life Center's Shelly Scribner.

Donald Vance, 64, of Modesto, was out there, too, holding a 5-foot by 8-foot U.S. flag mounted on the end of a long wooden staff. But the flag was hanging upside down.

Vance, a Navy veteran who served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969, said an upside-down flag is the international symbol for distress.

"That was the most powerful way for me to display my distress over the continuation of the war in Iraq," said Vance.

He was standing across the street from the rest of the protesters when someone grabbed him by the shoulder.

It was Brandon Estes, a 23-year-old war veteran from Modesto who served four years in the Marine Corps, including two combat tours in Iraq.

Estes said he was on his way to class at Modesto Junior College when he saw Vance holding up his distress-displaying flag. Estes parked his vehicle nearby and walked up to Vance to ask him to fly the flag right side up.

Estes said he doesn't have any problems with anti-war protests, but seeing the upside down flag was too much for him to handle.

"Seeing all the sweat, blood and tears that goes into that flag, it was one of the most disrespectful things you could do," said Estes, who has been out of the Marines for about a year and a half.

Estes said he attends a support group in Sonora for war veterans from Iraq and Vietnam. Less than a week ago, he attended the funeral services in Sonora for Army Sgt. Robert "Bobby" Rapp, who was killed March 3 by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan.

"For me to see that (the upside down flag), it makes me feel like this country is heading in the wrong direction," Estes said. "It makes me feel like my brothers died in vain."

Estes asked Vance to display the flag "the right way." Vance explained the symbolism of his "distress." The two men argued back and forth for a while, then Estes pulled the flag from Vance and headed to his vehicle.

Vance gave chase, attempting to grab back his flag. Protesters began to gather around the skirmish. Estes said he explained to the protesters his reasons for grabbing the flag and his years of service as a Marine.

Both men said they realized the situation could escalate for the worse, so they agreed to talk quietly away from the crowd. They told each other of their backgrounds and their feelings about the flag.

"I realized the guy was really hurting and he was very emotional," Vance said later that evening. "You could tell he was just a fine young man."

Estes said he was hoping Vance was starting to realize the pain he felt seeing a hurtful display of the same flag that's draped over the coffins of his fellow Marines, soldiers and sailors.

"I explained to him why it was a sign of disrespect, not only to me but also to my fallen brothers," Estes said.

Vance agreed to stop displaying the upside down flag for the rest of the day if Estes would give it back to him. Estes agreed, and as he handed it over the men decided they would put the flag away, folding it properly, with respect.

Estes said it will take some time for him to get over the emotional encounter, but he was glad Vance understood his feelings about the flag's symbolism.

Vance also said he was glad they were able to pull back from a physical clash that wouldn't have provided any solutions.

"It was like we were both displaying our respect for the flag," Vance said of the two of them, both veterans, folding the flag. "We had resolved a potential inflammatory situation."

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at or 578-2394.

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