Gay Pride Flag at VA

A gay pride flag flaps in the wind outside the Administration Building on the VA Montana campus at Fort Harrison in Helena Monday afternoon.

The rainbow-colored pride flag for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans is flying at Montana Veterans Affairs headquarters this month, and some vets aren’t happy.

The flags went up the pole at the beginning of June, which is LGBT pride month. Several U.S. Department of Veterans affairs facilities across the United States are flying the pride flag.

At Montana VA headquarters in Fort Harrison outside Helena, the flags are sparking outrage.

“They have seen fit to fly the rainbow flag, not only at Fort Harrison but also at the Fort Harrison Medical Center,” said Joe Parsetich, commander of the Disabled Veterans Department of Montana. “In my opinion, flagpole use should be kept to honorable type things. It’s not a political billboard.”

Parsetich likened the pride flag to flying a flag for Christians during the Christmas holiday or unfurling the Ku Klux Klan banner. To Parsetich’s knowledge, no flag other than the U.S. flag and state flag have flown at Fort Harrison previously.

The U.S. Armed Forces have a history of discriminating against service men and women over sexual identity. Before 2011, soldiers who were outed for not to being heterosexuals could be dishonorably discharged. The Department of Defense had since the 1990s operated under a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that avoided directly confronting sexual identity, but still allowed for punishment and denied benefits to same-sex spouses.

The pride flag first appeared outside the Montana VA director’s office, but was it removed, Parsetich said. It isn’t clear who took the flag down, but the VA raised the flag again and also raised another one at the medical center.

Montana Veteran’s Affairs Director John Ginnity did not respond to the Billings Gazette’s requests for comment, which Monday were left with his secretary and sent directly to Ginnity by email.

In a memorandum to undersecretaries and other key officials, Gina Farrisee, VA assistant secretary of human resources and administration, explained that in June the Veteran’s Administration would recognize LGBT Pride month using the theme “leading with Pride.”

“We understand that diversity and inclusion are essential for a high performing organization that delivers the best service to our veterans,” Farrisee told staff. “The LGBT community is an integral aspect of our human capital.”

On social media, flag opponents began sounding off last week after Northern Broadcasting talk radio host Aaron Flint covered the subject in his conservative blog, “The Flint Report.”

Shortly thereafter, Montana Republican Party Treasurer Debra Brown informed followers on social media that she had spoken with Rep. Ryan Zinke, who was meeting with VA officials to talk about removing the pride flag.

Zinke’s staff told the Billings Gazette on Monday that he hasn’t met with Montana VA officials to discuss the flag issue and doesn’t plan to. The Billings Gazette asked for Zinke’s opinion about the VA flying the pride flag. He didn't respond.

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., echoed Parsetich’s sentiments about the pride flag. Daines did not ask for the flags’ removal, according to his staff.

“I agree with many Montana veterans that VA facilities should not be used to make political statements,” Daines said. “June is PTSD Awareness Month, and we would rather work with the VA to increase awareness of ongoing veterans' health issues, like PTSD. Our office was contacted by several Montana veterans who were concerned about this issue. We reached out to the VA on their behalf to request information to relay back to these veterans.”

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said the flag that mattered was the American flag raised above all others, as is at Montana VA headquarters.

“As the VA serves veterans and employs folks from all walks of life, let’s not forget that we all are united under the flag that flies the highest,” Tester said.

The VA Office of Diversity also plans to observe Hispanic Heritage month this fall, and Native American Heritage Month. Earlier this year, the VA observed months for Black History and Asian Pacific Americans.

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