WASHINGTON -- Arkansas' delegates in the U.S. House of Representatives want the Department of Veterans Affairs to remove LGBTQ+ pride flags at its facilities, arguing that displaying such flags is endorsing a political position.
The Natural State's four congressmen -- Reps. Rick Crawford of Jonesboro, French Hill of Little Rock, Steve Womack of Rogers, and Bruce Westerman of Hot Springs -- joined 27 other House Republicans on a letter dated Tuesday to VA Secretary Denis McDonough critical of the displays.
"Veterans who have served our country deserve to enter a facility that is free from discrimination and political posturing," the legislators wrote. "These men and women were apolitical when they served our country, and we should strive to provide them with an apolitical VA when they seek care, benefits, and services that they have earned."
McDonough, who became VA secretary in February 2021, has authorized the flying of pride flags at facilities during each June of his tenure to commemorate the month as LGBTQ+ Pride Month. President Joe Biden signed a proclamation last week recognizing Pride Month, noting a rise in state legislative efforts targeting the LGBTQ+ community and intimidation efforts against LGBTQ+ people and organizations.
"It's our mission at VA to provide [LGBTQ+] veterans -- and all veterans -- with the world-class care and benefits they deserve in a safe, caring, and welcoming environment," Susan Carter, the director of the VA's media relations office, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
"We thank each and every one of these LGBTQ+ heroes for their service and sacrifice, and we encourage them to come to VA for their earned health care and benefits."
In their letter, the 31 House members expressed concern that VA facilities are flying the pride flag "at the expense of other traditional flags." Hill and Womack, in separate statements, cited the American flag, state flags, and the prisoner-of-war/missing-in-action flag as examples of appropriate flags, with Womack stating these flags "symbolize the unified freedom our veterans courageously fought to preserve for each and every American."
"Flying a political statement over any VA facility is offensive to those who've served and does not belong at an apolitical place where our veterans seek care, benefits, and services they have earned," Womack added.
The House coalition cited the department's policy barring flags at VA cemeteries that promote certain viewpoints and ideologies. The coalition also said the VA does not fly flags at its facilities recognizing other designated months.
"I am sure you would agree with us that the Pride flag is viewed by many, including numerous veterans our offices have engaged with as a political symbol reflective of a social movement and represents only one group of Americans," the lawmakers wrote.
George Hardardt of Hot Springs Village has called VA offices in Washington, D.C. and Arkansas to protest the pride flag at facilities. A Marine who retired in 1985 due to a medical condition connected to his service, he accused the Biden administration of using the flag to push LGBTQ+ issues.
"Yes, I have friends that are gay and I've known, but that flag doesn't belong being flown at a veterans hospital. Period," he contended. "It's a political goddamn statement."
In a Tuesday press release, Westerman said he called McDonough last Friday to express disappointment over the pride flags at VA facilities, describing the flag as "a special interest and politically perceived flag." The lawmaker added he plans to support legislation preventing VA facilities from flying pride flags in the future.
"When veterans who have served our country enter a VA facility to seek the care, benefits, and services they earned, they deserve to do so without facing political ideations before they even walk through the front door," Westerman said.
Crawford, who served in the Army as an explosive ordnance disposal technician, echoed his criticisms of the VA's policy on Wednesday, telling the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette the VA's decision is "particularly inappropriate" at medical facilities.
"If we're going to allow that for one political statement, then where do we stop?" he said. "I just don't want to open that door. I would like to keep things apolitical in the government realm, and the agencies that provide services -- particularly to our veterans -- should not be in the business of making political statements."
Carter said the department received the coalition's letter and will respond to lawmakers directly on the issue.
The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates there are more than 1 million LGBTQ+ military veterans in the United States. The agency has policies aimed at ensuring these veterans and their families can receive equal treatment, including expanding LGBTQ+ Veteran Care Coordinators to every VA health care system for handling allegations of unfair treatment related to one's sexual orientation or gender identity.
"LGBTQ people who go into the military go in there because they want to serve their country, the same as anyone else," Danny Ingram, a former Army soldier who resides in San Antonio, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Wednesday.
Ingram serves as national president emeritus of American Veterans for Equal Rights, an advocacy group representing current and retired LGBTQ+ military personnel. Ingram enlisted in the Army in 1988 amid the military's ban on LGBTQ+ people serving in its branches. Ingram advocated for lifting the ban in the early 1990s, outing himself as a gay man in the process.
Amid President Bill Clinton's efforts to replace the ban with the "don't ask, don't tell" policy -- prohibiting LGBTQ+ people from serving openly -- the Army began the process of discharging Ingram for his sexuality.
"I still love the military. I loved the military when I was in there, and I was very good at my job," he said. "For all service members, every man and woman who stands up to volunteer is doing so because they want to, and they want to serve their country, and they love their country."
Ingram's husband served in the Marines and later joined Ingram in campaigning against "don't ask, don't tell." Congress and President Barack Obama approved repealing the policy in late 2010.
For Ingram and his husband, VA facilities flying the pride flag is not a political statement.
"It is a matter of respecting some people who were specifically targeted, disrespected and hurt by Department of Defense policies," he said.
"I had a friend who was 93. He served in World War II, and thank God he lived to see the ban get lifted. It's all about perspective. What is happening now is very painful and very scary, but we have come a long way."
The Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ+ advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., issued a state of emergency for LGBTQ+ Americans on Tuesday, a first for the organization in its 43-year history. The organization cited state legislative efforts targeting gender-affirming medical care and discussions on LGBTQ+ issues, and offered resources for LGBTQ+ people seeking to move to states with protective policies.