Confederate flags at Hot Spring VA being removed again

Kevin Woster
Journal staff

Two Confederate flags in an historical display at the VA Medical Center in Hot Springs have again been removed, this time by a directive from a regional official.

And it looks like the flags will not be hung there again.

Janet Murphy, director of the VA Midwest Health Care Network in Eagan, Minn., announced Wednesday that the controversial flags would be removed from a Freedom Shrine display in the rotunda of the main VA building in Hot Springs.

Murphy, who oversees VA health-care facilities in all or parts of 10 states, made the decision two weeks after officials for the Veterans Affairs Black Hills Health System initially responded to complaints from two African-American veterans by temporarily taking down the flags.

But Black Hills VA Health System Director Steve DiStasio and other officials put the flags back up on April 23, citing their historical value in a system that honors all of the nation’s veterans.

After another week of controversy that included a call for the removal of the flags by U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., Murphy stepped in and reversed DiStasio.

"To ensure the Hot Springs VA Medical Center is a place of healing for all veterans, the Confederate flags will be removed from the Freedom Shrine display, located in the rotunda of the main building," Murphy said in a news release Wednesday. "This action is consistent with continued accomplishment of the medical center’s core mission, which is to provide quality health-care service to veterans. We thank everyone for their interest and concern for our veterans and apologize to anyone offended by the display."

The flags were initially removed after complaints from two African-American veterans receiving treatment at the VA center. The two veterans said they considered the flags to be symbols of racism.

The flags were put up again after the two veterans were given an early release from treatment programs at the Hot Springs VA center and left town. One of them, 49-year-old Desert Storm veteran Craig DeMouchette of Denver, said Wednesday that he was thrilled to learn of Murphy’s intervention.

"Wow, that is awesome," he said. "That is great news."

DeMouchette said he had been in contact with members of Colorado’s congressional delegation about getting the flags removed. He said he understood that the flags have historical value but believes their place to be in a museum setting.

Whatever the actual intent of the flags or their value, they have come to represent racism and oppression for African-Americans and other minorities, DeMouchette said.

"Were they taken out of original context? Yeah, in a way. But in today’s society they still represent hatred to minorities," he said. "They have a place in history, no doubt, but it’s a dark place. It is offensive."

Another veteran at the VA center for treatment disagrees. Anthony Gibson, a 52-year-old Navy veteran from Salt Lake City, checked Wednesday morning and confirmed that the Confederate flags had been removed from a display.

Gibson said it was "ludicrous to me that they would take that part of history down because somebody was uncomfortable with it."

DiStasio was right to return the flags to the display as a stand for historical perspective and respect for all veterans, Gibson said. The flags were removed because of political pressure that bows to inaccurate perceptions caused by the misuse of the Confederate battle flag by hate groups, he said.

"Taking down those flags gives credibility to those hate groups," Gibson said. "And do you know who loses here? It’s the Confederate soldiers and the history of the United States."

Johnson, who is chairman of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on VA issues, complimented the VA on this week’s decision.

"The VA has done the right thing in taking down the Confederate flags in Hot Springs," he said in a quote provided by his staff. "With this issue behind us, the VA can return its focus to taking care of the health needs of our veterans."

U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., agreed in a statement sent by her staff.

"I believe this was the right decision," she said. "Veterans of all backgrounds should feel welcome at our VA facilities."

As he did last week, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., avoided taking a position on whether the Confederate flags should be removed. He again focused on leaving such decisions up to the VA.

"As I stated in the past, the VA knows how to best provide an environment of care to make our veterans feel comfortable," Thune said. "Hopefully this decision allows the patients and staff at the VA to focus on the healing process and moving forward."

A spokesman for Murphy said other flags in the display will remain. The removal of the Confederate flags, she said, is permanent.

© Copyright 2013, Rapid City Journal

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