As the sun began to set over western Howard County on Dec. 23, dozens of people standing around and driving through the traffic circle at Woodbine Road and Old Frederick Road in Woodbine gazed up toward the sky, their eyes focused on a massive, billowing American flag hanging above the circle from the long arm of a crane. Many had changed or tweaked their holiday plans to be at the circle. Those coincidently passing by in their cars honked their horns loudly and shouted out their windows in support.
A large sign next to the crane, up a small hill from the circle, read, "Welcome Home U.S. TROOPS, United Patriots of Maryland."
The event, a rally of sorts, had been organized earlier in the week by Rhonda Winkler and her family, neighbors and friends — dozens of whom were at the event — as a show of patriotism, unity and undiminished resolve to fly the stars and stripes at the circle, despite what they have been told by the State Highway Administration.
The impetus behind the event, and the group's creation of the nonprofit United Patriots of Maryland, was the removal of a much smaller flag Winkler's family had placed on the circle by a state road crew last week, Winkler said.
"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.
The family first put a flag at the circle three years ago, when Winkler's nephew, Christopher Lawson, was coming home from his Army base in Washington state to see family before being deployed to Afghanistan. The family knew Lawson would pass through the circle, everyone in the area does, and wanted to give him a public send-off in his hometown.
Ever since then, the family has kept a flag waving above the circle, replacing it every few months with a new flag provided by the American Legion Gold Star Post 191 in Mount Airy.
Then, about a month ago, they found the flag had been run over by a vehicle — intentionally, they said. Winkler's father-in-law, Fred Winkler, and family friend Jack Baker, an 88-year-old World War II veteran, replaced the flag again, this time with a new gold-painted pole that they stuck in the ground. At some point, the pine tree at the center of the circle was also heavily trimmed to make the flag more visible.
Then, on Monday, Dec. 19, Rhonda Winkler got a call from a cousin, who said she had just watched state road crews remove the flag and the flag pole, and throw them in the back of a dump truck. Winkler's husband, Jeff Winkler, called the SHA, and was told people had complained about the flag and the damaged tree, and that the placement of the flag on the circle constituted trespassing on state property, she said.
Fred Winkler and Baker later followed up about the flag and had a "nice, civil conversation about it" with a SHA official, Fred Winkler said, but they couldn't get it back.
Riled, the family started planning the event. They got a permit and created the group. Rhonda Winkler called Bob Johnson, whose farm is next to hers and who owns Johnson Crane Service Inc., and Johnson said he immediately agreed to pull a crane from service elsewhere to fly the flag. He was sick when he learned the flag had been removed, he said.
"We're patriots. We're very proud to live in America and have the privilege to do these things," he said.
And so the event was held, complete with a horse-drawn carriage decked out in stars and stripes. One man walked around with a flag draped over his shoulders. Kids waved small flags.
According to David Buck, an SHA spokesman, the administration is thinking over the situation and how best to address it, but there are a lot of issues to work out, including safety concerns, as people have to cross the road to get into the circle, Buck said.
"They don't have traffic control out there, and they don't have (road work) vests on," he said.
It's also a shame the tree was destroyed, he said.
"They basically stripped the tree to the point that it's likely to die now," he said. "…It resembles more of a Charlie Brown Christmas tree now than anything else."
Statewide solution is needed
Still, Buck said he hopes there is a solution to be found, just as one was found when more and more people began hanging flags from highway overpasses after Sept. 11, 2001, and the administration drafted a policy to allow them to do so.
"This would have to be a full, statewide policy that would have to apply to more than just roundabouts, but we did get there with overpasses," he said.
At the event, Lawson said the American flag, the symbol of everything he served to protect, just shouldn't be messed with.
"I'm just happy I wasn't here when it got taken down, because I would have freaked out. Permit or not, it's the American flag," Lawson said. "Who cares about the pine tree? I'll buy them a new one if it means putting the flag back up."
When Lawson got back from Afghanistan to Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport in July 2010, there wasn't a big welcome for troops like there are at other, larger airports, he said, so getting back to Woodbine and seeing the flag at the circle meant something to him.
"It lets you know that people actually remember there are still soldiers over there," he said.
Daniela Schnetzler, a Mount Airy resident and owner of the Creative Edge salon in Woodbine, said she rushed over to the event as soon as she heard about it.
Her son, 1st Lt. William Schnetzler, just returned from Iraq on Dec. 11, surprising her for Christmas, she said, and seeing the community out supporting the troops meant a lot.
"It brought tears to my eyes. We need that support. Freedom isn't free, I'll tell you that," she said. "I wanted to know (who'd organized the event) and I wanted to shake their hand."
Gene Mellin, of Mount Airy, said the showing of support meant a lot to him, too, as his son, Cpl. Warren Mellin, is currently in Afghanistan serving with the Army.
"I won't have my son home for Christmas this year because he's fighting for that flag, and to have the community out here the way they are pays tribute to him and all the others fighting," Mellin said. "I'll send pictures to my son, so he knows people in the community where he's from appreciate what he does."
The fact that the flag was removed at all, Mellin said, bugged him.
"If it was something derogatory or inappropriate, that's one thing. But to take the flag down, it's not right," he said. "I know they have rules, but it's just a flag. It's the flag."