Rhonda Winkler

When Rhonda Winkler organized a rally supporting the right to maintain an American flag on a traffic circle in Woodbine, the story quickly gained national attention. “It’s been a lot more than I thought it would be,” Winkler said of the attention. “But I’m proud of what we are doing and what we’re standing up for.” (Photo by Noah Scialom / December 23, 2011)

Rhonda Winkler has never been contacted by so many strangers in her life.

Soldiers from all across the country have been emailing her and sending her Facebook messages with notes of appreciation. Mothers have been thanking her for setting a good example for their children. A retired Air Force officer in Oklahoma sent her a three-page letter in the mail, telling her to "keep up the fight."

And in her small, western Howard County community of Woodbine? Forget about it.

"In our community, I can't go anywhere without people saying, 'Keep it up! Good job! We're behind you!'" Winkler said.

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All of the attention began just before Christmas, when the American flag that Winkler and her family had maintained for three years on the traffic circle at the intersection of Woodbine Road and Old Frederick Road was removed by a State Highway Administration crew. Winkler decided to hold an event at the circle Dec. 23 that was one part protest, one part patriotic rally.

The flag's removal didn't sit well with her family, nor with the community at large, Winkler said, and they wanted to show it.

"I'm not a big stink-maker; I don't sweat the small stuff and we're at the point (in society) where you can't say this and you can't do that, but the American flag is one thing we are all going to stand up for," Winkler said at the time.

The Howard County Times first reported the event and the community's frustration with the SHA's actions. The story went viral. National news outlets got wind of the story and ran with it.

Winkler appeared on the television program Fox and Friends to talk about the issue, and Fox News ran two segments on the story.

In short, the controversy took on a life of its own, with Winkler at the center of the storm.

"It's been a lot more than I thought it would be," Winkler said of the attention she and her family have received. "But I'm proud of what we are doing and what we're standing up for."

'Controversy Spreads Misinformation'

What the community is standing up for, Winkler said, is the American flag and all it represents.

Unfortunately for the SHA, that patriotic story line has largely cast the administration as a bungling, bureaucratic government agency standing against the flag — which is not true, said Valerie Edgar, director of the administration's office of communications.

From top to bottom, the SHA is made up of regular people who live in the same local communities and are as patriotic as everyone else involved, Edgar said.

"We love the American flag. We have it at all our offices," she said. "We have family members who are veterans. We've had current employees be deployed."

Edgar said misinformation spread by the media distorted what happened at the circle and why it happened.

To combat the perceived confusion, the SHA posted a 10-paragraph response on its Web site's homepage titled, "Flag Controversy Spreads Misinformation."

The gist of that response was that the SHA is eager to work with the Woodbine community to find a solution and that key parts of the spreading story — including that the flag was thrown in the back of a dump truck and that the Winkler family was denied the flag when they asked for it back, as the Times initially reported and other outlets repeated – are not true.

"The flag was lowered and respectfully folded and placed in the cab of an SHA vehicle and stored securely in an SHA facility until it could be claimed by the owner," the statement said.