Johnson urges VA to take down Confederate flags in Hot Springs medical center

April 25, 2013
Kevin Woster

U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson joined the debate Wednesday over two Confederate flags in a display at the VA Medical Center in Hot Springs, saying the flags should be removed.

The South Dakota Democrat, who is chairman of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee that includes Veterans Affairs, said VA officials erred by returning the flags to an historical display after removing them last week when two African-American veterans complained.

“Last week, the Hot Springs VA did the right thing by taking down the Confederate flags," Johnson said through a staff member. "I am disappointed to hear the flags have been put back up. They should stay down."

Johnson was responding to a Journal question submitted by his staff. Similar requests were made by email to staffers for Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D. Follow-up emails also were sent seeking comment.

By early evening Wednesday, neither staff had responded.

Others were engaging in the debate over the flags and their handling, however.

Anthony Gibson, a 52-year-old Navy veteran from Salt Lake City currently being treated in Hot Springs, called the Journal to say he supported the decision by VA officials to return the flags to their spot in an 8-flag historical display in the rotunda of the VA Medical Center.

Gibson said he agreed with Steve DiStasio, director of the VA Black Hills Health System, when he said the flags were returned because of their historical significance and their role in showing respect for all veterans.

DiStasio said Tuesday that the flags were taken down for a period out of respect for the complaints of some veterans.

The flags are not symbols of racism but rather pieces of history, Gibson said.

"The flags should stay up. We honor veterans everywhere, even if we disagree with them," he said. "I didn’t think it was prudent for the VA to take them down in the first place. It was kind of a slap in the face that they were taken down."

The two veterans most responsible for the temporary removal of the flags considered the sight of Confederate flags to be a slap in the face, however. Desert Storm veteran Craig DeMouchette, 49, of Denver said his father was once assaulted in a Southern state by men who wrapped him in a Confederate flag.

"The sight of that flag has a really personal effect on me," he said.

DeMouchette and Iraq War veteran Kameron Mitchell of Lincoln, Neb., said they considered the flags to be symbols of a racism that had no place in a treatment center for all veterans.

Both men believe they were given an early-release option from post-traumatic-stress-disorder treatment in order to get them out of town so the flags could be put back up. DeMouchette found out the flags were up during an interview with the Journal less than two hours after he left the Hot Springs VA on Tuesday.

Mitchell, who had left earlier, didn’t learn about the return of the flags until he contacted the Journal on Wednesday morning.

"I can’t believe that. This was a direct reprisal," he said. "They sent me home. And now they did this. I cannot believe it."

DeMouchette said he would contact members of his congressional delegation in Colorado, urging permanent removal of the flags. Mitchell said he would do the same with his congressional delegation in Nebraska.

DiStasio and other VA officials in the Black Hills have declined to talk about why the men were released with full credit two weeks early from the treatment program. The VA officials say privacy rules for the veterans prevent them from commenting.

Gibson said those who see the flags in their Hot Springs display as symbols of racism are "not paying attention to history." He said he believes many veterans at the Hot Springs VA understand the historical significance of the flags and support returning them to the display.

"If somebody put those flags up to promote hate or racism, they should not be there," he said. "But that’s not what the display was intended for."

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