"Support Our Troops": A magnetic issue 

Should police and city vehicles have yellow ribbons supporting the troops?

click to enlarge Magnets bearing the Support Our Troops message can - be found   on various government vehicles around - Colorado Springs. - J. ADRIAN STANLEY
  • J. Adrian Stanley
  • Magnets bearing the Support Our Troops message can be found on various government vehicles around Colorado Springs.

For a while, it seemed everybody had them. Some people had four or five, stuck haphazardly to the back of their minivan or station wagon.

So maybe you didn't notice when, in 2005, police and city vehicles started sporting city-approved "Support Our Troops" magnetic ribbons on their bumpers and trunks.

Police spokesman Lt. Skip Arms says police don't often get approval to put unofficial markings on vehicles. The magnet was an exception.

Mayor Lionel Rivera says he remembers the donated bumper magnets being approved jointly through the city and county, with his support.

"I think it was in recognition of the sacrifices men and women in uniform make," Rivera says.

According to Paul Harvey, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs American history professor, many Americans see those yellow magnets as above reproach. Even our local Girl Scouts council offers a "Support Our Troops" patch.

"Once you get beyond the borders, then we're all Americans,'" Harvey says, approximating the average American opinion. "That's why people see it as acceptable, apolitical, something we can all feel good about."

But as support for the Iraq war has dissolved, some opportunistic public officials and candidates have seized upon the "Support Our Troops" statement.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has a Web site that features a page urging the public to "join the surge of support for our troops!"

"When I was recently in Colorado Springs," it states, "I spoke with a man whose son is serving in Iraq. He said the criticism at home of the war effort was demoralizing."

One of Romney's opponents, John McCain, has made speeches tying support of the troops to support of the war. Even the Department of Defense has jumped on the bandwagon, with the Web site americasupportsyou.mil.

Suddenly, "Support Our Troops" doesn't feel apolitical. And to some, that makes the decal less of a feel-good idea.

City's magnets stay

Cathryn Hazouri, executive director of the ACLU of Colorado, says the magnets are on shaky legal ground. As a representation of the view of the city, they're fine, because they don't represent a religious viewpoint. The problem is, the public might think the magnets represent not only the view of the city, but also that of the employee driving a given vehicle.

"I think [the city has] the right to make the decision as to whether or not they want a message on their vehicles," Hazouri says. "The question is, do their employees have the right to not have the same views and not publicize the same views?"

Apparently not. City spokeswoman Becky Farrar says city employees are not allowed to remove the magnets.

"It's a city vehicle, so it's not the property of the driver," she says, "so therefore the decision isn't up to the driver. It's direction from the mayor and Council, so it stays on there."

Hazouri says that policy infringes on the rights of city employees. And, she says, from an ethical standpoint, it's best to just leave off the magnets altogether.

When asked, Bill Durland, an attorney, local ACLU chair and veteran, seconds that notion. He has some experience with "apolitical" statements; he thought the peace signs on his T-shirt and posters were apolitical when he was marching in the St. Patrick's Day parade. (Who doesn't like peace?) Parade organizers disagreed, and chaos ensued.

After being arrested and put through a trial that ended in a hung jury, Durland will tell you that what seems innocuous to one person can be offensive to another.

"What does it mean?" he asks of the ribbon. "What are they trying to convey?"

Not like post-Vietnam

Similar messages, Harvey says, were all over public vehicles during World War II and the Depression. During the Vietnam War, people remember, veterans received poor treatment; that's why even as Iraq has dragged on, Harvey says, most people still want to show support for soldiers.

That will hold true no matter how many politicians co-opt a statement, according to Jay Fawcett, a decorated veteran and Democratic candidate for Congress in 2006.

"What we're saying is that civilians are too stupid to understand the vagaries of our government and of our foreign policy, so politicians will think for them," he says. "I find that insulting and patronizing."

Still, "Support Our Troops" no longer sits as well with Garett Reppenhagen, a Colorado Springs resident who served in Iraq and is now a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War.

In an e-mail, he expressed frustration that soldiers are "serving as fuel for talking points to defend the opposing stances against or for the war in Iraq."

Reppenhagen wrote that the country is too focused on political bravado, and too little on the war itself.

"The Support our Troops magnets might mean support for the war for some," he says. "[H]owever regardless of the meaning ... I doubt if many of the soldiers going to Iraq for their fifth deployment, the struggling veterans that have returned, and the families who have lost loved ones, care one way or another."


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