Stars and strife


Morning broke with fog so thick the Army helicopter pilot couldn’t see the tips of his Huey’s rotors. It was Jan. 6, 1968, a very bad day for U.S. soldiers near Chu Lai in South Vietnam.

But neither the perilous weather nor fierce enemy fire kept Maj. Patrick Henry Brady from accomplishing what nine other medical evacuation helicopters had tried but failed to do: Fly six times into the breach to rescue 51 severely injured troops, many trapped under attack or scattered in a minefield.

Brady went through three UH-1H helos on those missions, including one he managed to fly even after part of its controls had been shot away. By nightfall, the three aircraft bore more than 400 holes from shrapnel and weapons fire. For his valor and “intrepidity in action” that day, Brady would later receive the Medal of Honor.

Now, 38 years later, Brady, 69 and a retired Army major general, is engaged in another all-consuming mission, this one to save the American flag from those who would abuse it. Ask him why, and he tells you his motivation is the same as that which fueled him in Vietnam — serving and protecting America, its freedoms and ideals.

“The flag is the physical embodiment of those values,” said Brady, who, for the past decade, has been chairman of the Citizens Flag Alliance, a coalition of more than 140 veterans, fraternal and civic groups dedicated to amending the Constitution to allow Congress to outlaw burning or any other physical desecration of Old Glory.

But Brady is not the only decorated Vietnam veteran commanding an ideological army in this high-emotion debate, which moves front and center next week — the week before the Fourth of July — in Washington and appears poised to be decided by a single senator’s vote.

On the other side of the argument is Gary May, an ex-Marine who says he joined the service in 1967 out of a sense of duty to the country he loved, only to become disaffected by what he saw in Vietnam and after.

Now a social-work professor at the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville and the leader of an Indiana veterans group opposed to the war in Iraq, May lost two limbs in Vietnam, two months after he shipped there.

Walking point in a rice paddy on a night reconnaissance patrol southwest of Da Nang, he was felled by an enemy land mine, which took both his legs above the knees. He left the Marine Corps decorated with a Bronze Star with a combat “V” for valor.

Since 1999, May, 57, has headed the group Veterans Defending the Bill of Rights, which advocates shielding the Constitution against attempts to weaken its protections of free speech and dissent — a category he believes includes the burning of a U.S. flag.

“The real question is this: Is the symbol more important than the freedom?’ ” May asked as he waited in an airport on a recent trip to spread the word in Washington.

The causes of the two men — whose paths nearly crossed during the Vietnam War, when members of Brady’s unit apparently evacuated May after he was wounded — are about to collide on Capitol Hill.

The Senate is scheduled to debate the flag-burning question the week of June 26. And, unlike past congressional battles over the polarizing subject, this one could be pivotal.

The controversy was born almost exactly 18 years ago, when the Supreme Court narrowly ruled on June 21, 1989, that flag-burning is a form of speech. As such, it is protected under the Constitution’s First Amendment and not subject to outlawing by Congress or state legislatures — except by amending the Constitution.

But rather than settling the issue, that 5-4 court ruling triggered an escalation of the debate, which has roiled Congress off and on since then. A similar Supreme Court ruling in 1990 also figured into the discussion.

A proposed constitutional amendment must first be approved by two-thirds of the House and the Senate.

Six times, the House has embraced Brady’s argument. A year ago, in the chamber’s most recent move, lawmakers voted 286-130 to support the proposed 17-word amendment: “The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.”

And the Senate, which has been a perennially insurmountable obstacle, now is within one vote of approving it as well, according to various headcounts of supporters. The battle has never before been this close.

Senators are scheduled to take up the high-emotion issue the week of June 26, with the goal of having a vote before the Fourth. If the Senate passes it, what would be the 28th amendment to the Constitution would move next to the states for ratification.

Brady is confident that, should the amendment finally pass muster on Capitol Hill, the required 38 states would approve the measure, given that all 50 legislatures are on record as supporting a flag-protection law.

“All we are saying is let the people decide,” said Brady, who calls both San Antonio and the Seattle area home.

With the backing of the mighty American Legion, the nation’s largest veterans organization, Brady estimates that he’s logged nearly 1 million miles on his coast-to-coast missions to drum up support for the amendment. He’s even postponed badly needed hip-replacement surgery until after the Senate vote.

But an analysis of what looms ahead even if the amendment is ratified might give him pause.

The First Amendment Center, a nonpartisan educational organization at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, predicts that adoption of a flag-protection measure is certain to trigger challenges by the American Civil Liberties Union and other allied groups of any legislation enacted in Congress to implement it. Then, there would be court battles over enforcement of flag-protection laws.

“Passage of a constitutional amendment would only be the beginning of a long series of disputes over flag desecration,” the 2005 study concludes.

(Contact Lisa Hoffman at HoffmanL(at)shns.com)

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