Display symbolizes cost of war

Thousands of flags show U.S. death toll

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

It’s a striking but mysterious sight: thousands of yellow utility flags planted in a snow-covered field next to a weathered barn on North Williston Road.

The display is easily visible to the thousands of motorists traveling the stretch just north of Mountain View Road each day. But what are the tiny flags, which are usually used to mark gas lines, doing there? And why so many?

Pat Brown, who lives in the adjacent farmhouse and owns the property, has the answers.

There are 3,066 flags, he explained, one to mark each American killed in the Iraq war. (The Associated Press reported on Tuesday that the number had risen to 3,086.)

“I put them there because I didn’t think the media were reminding people often enough that people are dying every day,” he said.

Brown said he deliberately omitted obvious indications of the flags’ purpose because he wanted viewers to draw their own conclusions.

“I purposely didn’t put any sign out because I just wanted people to think,” he said.

Brown’s views on the war are as opaque as his display.

“I’d rather not say,” he said. “I put it out there because the war is an interesting issue. I don’t think the media are doing enough to teach us about what is going on.”

The flags have drawn reactions from a few passing motorists. Brown said some have stopped to ask about the flags’ purpose. One person driving a military vehicle snapped photographs.

Jericho resident Jill Cronkrite-Potvin sent an e-mail to the Observer asking about the flags, which she passes during her commute to South Burlington. She correctly guessed their purpose but wondered if the newspaper knew anything about the display.

In a follow-up e-mail, she said she first noticed the flags in the early fall.

“I remember thinking that if that is what they symbolized, there would be more every day,” she wrote. “The flags have been a reminder to me of my own father’s service to our country in the Navy during WWII, as well as the sacrifice of more recent veterans and their families.”

Brown, 55, is director of student life at the University of Vermont. He is married to Amy Huntington, a children’s book author. The couple have two grown children.

Huntington said the flags, purchased on the Internet for a couple of hundred dollars, were her husband’s idea. She said she supports the display and its thought-provoking nature.

“It’s so easy to forget (the death toll),” she said. “On the news, you get a little blip that so many people died in Iraq. It’s not an anti-war thing so much as you want people to remember what it’s all about.”

Polls show that a majority of Americans oppose the war. Protesters numbering in the tens of thousands marched to the U.S. Capitol on Saturday. Hundreds of Vermonters participated.

Brown said he started displaying the flags after Thanksgiving. He has since occasionally added flags to reflect the latest death toll, most recently on Sunday.

As a college student in the 1960s, Brown said he was involved with Vietnam War protests “until they turned violent.” He said he also protested nuclear power during the 1970s.

Huntington said her husband “is the kind of person who gets fired up” about issues like the war in Iraq.

She also declined to voice her opinion about the conflict, but likened it to Vietnam.

“We remember the Vietnam War,” she said. “And now we have kids. It’s another generation and it’s happening again.”