By Steve Hansen
QCS Managing Editor
Steve Benevidez wanted to send a message.
The country is in trouble and so is Tucumcari, the Vietnam Army veteran who calls himself a patriot said.
He thinks the trouble is deep enough to be a crisis, so he decided to make his message as urgent as he thinks the situation is.
He hung a U.S. flag upside-down in front of his store on Seventh Street in Tucumcari.
That kind of signal is meant to signal immediate, life-threatening distress in U.S. flag codes, so it’s a pretty strong message, Benevidez agreed.
Then, along came Zach Phillips of Tucumcari and his fiancee.
They were driving along on Seventh Street and the fiancee remarked on how strange the flag looked.
“I looked and thought, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me,’” Phillips said.
He snapped a picture and posted it on his Facebook page.
Joseph Otero, Steve McClure and Mario Chavez saw the Facebook posting and decided the inverted flag was showing disrespect for the country.
Otero and Chavez are Army reservists. Otero is an ex-Marine.
They got together and climbed to the roof of Benevidez’s store and took down his flag.
Chavez said the three went to Benevidez’s store and saw no one there.
“Then we jumped up there and took down the flag,” he said.
Otero and McClure were not available for comment Tuesday.
On Sunday, Otero contacted Benevidez and had a talk, Benevidez said.
Benevidez told them he was a Vietnam veteran and that he hung the flag upside down to signal his distress for the shape of the country and his city.
The flag-takers relented and returned the flag to Benevidez, Chavez said.
Otero even took a picture of himself and McClure shaking Benevidez’s hand and posted it on Facebook.
At some time, however, someone contacted KRQE television in Albuquerque. They came out and did a story, which they ran in a newscast.
Since then, Phillips and Benevidez said, all have been subjected to strongly worded messages by phone and through Facebook about whether it was right to hang a flag upside-down and whether it was right to take the flag down.
On Monday morning, Benevidez’s daughter Angela Gonzalez came into her father’s store.
She begged her father to put the flag up the right way or take it down.
“I’m defending you,” she said, “and I will continue to stand up for you, but if you end up hurt…”
Benevidez told her, “I’ll think about it.”
On Tuesday, the flag was still flying with the stars in the lower left.
Even though he did not have part in taking the flag down, Phillips said Tuesday he had been talking to veterans all day about flag etiquette and law.
In an exchange with Gonzalez on Facebook, Otero said to her, “I have nothing but respect for your father.”
The flag code is specific, but U.S. Supreme Court rulings have defended the breaking of the flag code as protected free speech.
In the state of New Mexico, however, improper display ofthe flag is a misdemeanor.
Benevidez said his protest was sparked at the national level by treatment of veterans.
Veterans are covered for only two doctor’s visits a year, he said, and there are not enough veterans’ facilities in rural areas to serve veterans adequately.
Veterans in Tucumcari have to make three- to four-hour round trips several times a week for kidney dialysis. The federal Veterans Administration should place a couple of dialysis units in Tucumcari Benevidez said.
Tucumcari, he said, is sorely lacking in job and career opportunities for younger people or for retirees who may want to earn extra cash.
“All you have is McDonald’s and the like,” he said. “We need factories.”
He said he wants to gather community members in town hall-like meetings to discuss what the city needs.
Too many kids and adults, he said, are using drugs and drinking, because they have nothing better to do.
Until something starts happening in these areas, he said, he is going to continue to post the colors upside-down.
Chavez said he has no regrets about taking the flag down.
“I understand the concept and the reason why he did it,” Chavez said of Benevidez, “but my personal opinion is that it was an abuse of the flag.”