When the Freeport Flag Ladies began their weekly ritual of standing with Old Glory along their hometown’s Main Street 18 years ago, not everyone greeted them with smiles.

“When we first came out, there were some scowls, like we might be warmongers or something,” one of the trio, JoAnn Miller, told the Press Herald in 2002.

Riding in a 1917 Ford, JoAnn Miller, left and Elaine Greene , both of Freeport press the patriotic flesh as they enjoy Freeport’s 9/11 parade for which they were the catalyst in 2002. Fred Field

Soon scowls were outnumbered by honks and waves, and they began getting visits from veterans and members of Maine’s congressional delegation.

Their stated purpose from the beginning was to commemorate the horrific terrorist attacks of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, and to show support for everyone called to protect American citizens, from firefighters and police officers to members of every military branch. They expanded their activities to include seeing Maine soldiers off to their deployments, welcoming them home, attending military funerals, sending care packages to troops, and visiting schools and veterans’ homes.

Every Tuesday from 8 to 9 a.m. for the past 18 years, at least one of the three — Miller, 83, Elaine Greene, 73, and Carmen Footer, 77 — has been on Main Street. They’ve stood their ground despite snow, frigid temperatures, sickness and open heart surgery. But recently they decided the physical toll of their weekly demonstrations was too great, so their flag details will end. After doing their final Tuesday this week, they’ll stand there one last time Wednesday, the 18th anniversary of 9/11, beginning at 8 a.m.

“I really admire their commitment and their ability to make a difference, I think, by providing a visual way of supporting the troops,” said Lynne Schuster Mcghee of Harpswell, whose husband served in the Army and who plans to stand on Main Street with the Flag Ladies on Wednesday. “The last thing I want is a war; I want the soldiers safe. But we have to let them know we haven’t forgotten them.”

TAKING A STAND

Greene, Miller and Footer are longtime friends and roommates who met while working in the medical field. Miller worked in X-rays, Footer worked with ultrasound technology, and Miller was an anesthesiologist who also worked in pain management. When the 9/11 attacks happened, they wanted to find a way to help. They figured they were too old to join the military and weren’t sure they could be of help at Ground Zero. Greene said the idea to stand on the street in Freeport with flags was “an answer to a prayer.”

They began standing on Main Street on the Tuesday after Sept. 11 and felt that people appreciated their message. So they kept going. Sometimes they attract supporters who stand with them. Often they stand by themselves. After someone referred to them as “the Flag Ladies” in a story in the Press Herald, they adopted the nickname, using it on their website and on their answering machine.

At least once in 18 years the Flag Ladies have encountered outright opposition. In 2015 Jamie Roux, whose father died in the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center, was charged with disorderly conduct for shouting during a 9/11 commemoration in Freeport that the Flag Ladies had helped organize. The charges were later dropped. Roux says police assaulted him.

Freeport High School seniors Lily Johnston, Chloe Hight and Lindsay Cartmell, stand along Main Street in Freeport on December 22, 2015. The students were there to show support for Liza Moore, a Freeport teacher who has held signs in the same area where the Flag Ladies stand, supporting refugees and urging Americans to be more accepting of outsiders. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Roux had become increasingly frustrated over what he saw as the transformation of  9/11 remembrances from days of reflection to celebrations of veterans or military strength. He later demonstrated near their Main Street spot, along with his mother, and exchanged words with them. The women filed for a court order of protection from harassment against him, but their case was dismissed. (Roux declined to be interviewed for this story.)

During their 18 years on Main Street they’ve become famed and beloved for their support of soldiers and the flag, as well as a reminder of the flag’s emotional and political power. The three, who dress in flag-patterned shirts and jackets, have been invited to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at various events, including Maine visits by Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, when he was a candidate. Maine’s former U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe presented them with flags that had flown over the U.S. Capitol. The Flag Ladies appeared on election night in 2016 at a Portland party for Trump supporters.

Greene says their appearances at political events do not mean they endorse a view or candidate and that they accept a range of invitations.

“We make it clear we’re not endorsing anyone,” said Greene, who noted she is the spokeswoman for the Flag Ladies. “We come for fellow Americans who invite us.”

A POWERFUL MESSAGE

While the women say they don’t take political sides and don’t promote policy positions, waving a flag during a time of war can wield a powerful political message, said Randall Curren, a philosophy professor at the University of Rochester in New York state and co-author of the 2018 book “Patriotic Education in the Global Age.”

When people began displaying flags in large numbers after the post-Sept. 11 invasion of Iraq – on pickup trucks, at events, on the street – it was natural that some people would interpret the displays  as “supporting the government’s decision to wage war,” Curren said.

“In that context, displaying the flag may also amount to a form of cheerleading, of encouraging the troops to fight and win. Whether that counts as ‘supporting our troops’ is debatable,” Curren said. “The mothers of service men and women who opposed the invasion of Iraq also believed they were supporting our troops.”

The flag was first used politically among civilians in the late 1800s, when the Grand Army of the Republic, a Civil War Veterans group, started placing flags in public schools to indoctrinate the children of European immigrants and help ensure loyalty in their new home, said Charles Dorn, an education professor at Bowdoin College in Brunswick who was Curren’s co-author. Around the same time and as part of the same movement, the Pledge of Allegiance was written as a way to have youngsters, including immigrants, pledge their loyalty to the flag, the symbol of the country.

The political power and potential divisiveness of the flag have always been greatest during wartime, Dorn said, pointing out that the past 18 years represent the longest period of war in U.S. history. During World War II, Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance were threatened and beaten, he said.

In recent years, the flag has been at the center of national controversies on what constitutes patriotism. Trump has criticized professional football players who kneel during the national anthem to protest racial inequality. Since 9/11 the military and professional sports teams have partnered to have military ceremonies, including flyovers, at games.

“So you have sports and the military tied together in expressions of patriotism and the flag is at the center of it, ” Dorn said.

Former U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine agrees that in recent years people have used the flag for political purposes. But he does not think the Freeport Flag Ladies fall into that category.

Michaud, a Democrat, met the three women at several veterans’ events when he represented Maine’s 2nd District from 2003 to 2015, and visited them several times on Main Street in Freeport. As a member of the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs he talked to many service members and veterans, and felt that the Flag Ladies had made a positive impact on them. He talked to Maine soldiers who had gotten cards and care packages from the women while deployed overseas.

“They really appreciated the gesture, the idea that someone was thinking about them and getting others to think about them,” Michaud said. “There are politicians who certainly use the flag for political purposes, but what they are doing is showing gratitude and appreciation for people who serve.”

The Flag Ladies say they have been expressing their love of their country. But they also say they know the country has become more politically divided, and they hope their message has been unifying.

“We have had a lot of people from every political walk of life talk to us, and they know we’ll listen. I think right now both sides in this country need to find middle ground on a lot of issues,” Greene said. “I’ve voted all over the map, Democrats and Republicans, and I would never tell anyone what to think. It’s never been ‘our way or the highway.'”

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