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The sting is in the small type

Antiwar T-shirts that list the names of troops killed in Iraq have angered relatives of the dead while fueling a debate over free speech.

September 24, 2007|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

FLAGSTAFF, ARIZ. — It took Dan Frazier a long time to figure out how to make a living.

He cared for a quadriplegic. He sold health food from the back of his bicycle. He drove a van for disabled people. Then, after years of drifting from job to job, Frazier turned to the Internet. Marrying his politics and entrepreneurial instincts, he began selling left-leaning bumper stickers.

He designed one in 2003 that listed the names of troops -- about 500 then -- who had been killed in the Iraq war. The phrase "Bush Lied" was superimposed over the names. As the casualty count grew, the bumper sticker became a T-shirt, and Frazier added the words "They Died."

The venture started out as a way to pay the rent, but it landed Frazier in the middle of a fight over what is free speech versus what is exploitation of the dead.

Frazier says that he has an inherent right to use the names and that he's not ascribing any political belief to anyone. "The shirt doesn't say these people opposed the war. Just that they died," he said.

Some parents say their children would not want their names used this way. When they asked Frazier to remove the names from the shirts and he refused, the families turned to their elected officials.

Five states -- Arizona, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and Florida -- have since passed laws requiring permission from members of the military or their next of kin before their names can be used commercially. A version of the law has been introduced in each chamber of Congress.

After Arizona's Legislature unanimously passed its statute in May, Frazier said, he had to find a new printer because his first one feared breaking the law. Frazier has received so many irate calls he is afraid to answer his phone, and he believes someone has been watching his apartment.

"A lot of those soldiers died thinking they were fighting for American values like freedom of speech, and now their loved ones want to take that right away," said Frazier, 42.

The parents say it's a matter of respect.

Margy Bons argued furiously with her son Michael Marzano about the war. He was so gung-ho to go to Iraq that he hunted for and joined a Reserve unit that was scheduled to quickly deploy. Marzano, a sergeant in the Marines, was killed in 2005 -- by a suicide bomber in northern Iraq -- just weeks after writing to his mother in Phoenix that he remained convinced he was "doing the right thing."

"Do you believe anyone who wrote that would want his name on this T-shirt?" Bons asked. "Do I believe in this war? No. But my son did. And that's whose name I have to protect."

Robert Vandertulip of Irving, Texas, had also demanded that Frazier remove the name of his son, Army Spc. Josiah Vandertulip, who was killed by a sniper in Baghdad in 2004. "From the time that they're born, your main concern is trying to make sure they're protected," he said. "It does not end when they have died."

The son of a newspaper executive, Frazier moved constantly as a child. He wanted to be a movie director and studied film production at UCLA, but he ended up working for a videotape editing company, then a business that sold Super 8 film equipment.

In 1992, realizing that his Hollywood dreams were out of reach, he left Los Angeles for Arizona. For several years he lived in a tent in the woods outside Flagstaff while working odd jobs.

He attended a conservative church and freelanced articles such as one on the odds of a woman meeting a good Christian man. But he began to question his religious beliefs as he spent more time in this mountain city.

Eventually he married a writer and liberal activist here. The couple got rid of the tent, rented an apartment and founded a progressive weekly newspaper. They refused to take ads from any non-locally owned business and depended on donations from readers. It folded after two years.

"We pioneered our way right into the ground," Frazier joked.

With the newspaper gone, Frazier experimented with another moneymaking venture: He had found plastic wheels to replace the ones on his office chair, so it could glide easily on carpeting. He began to distribute the wheels over the Internet.

That was 2002, and there was growing anger with the Bush administration and the buildup to the Iraq war. Frazier saw opportunity in selling bumper stickers. So a year later, he began producing the one with names of the war dead. "I got on the bandwagon just as it started going," he said.

By May 2005, the number of U.S. troops dead reached 1,600. He started printing the T-shirts. Sales were slow. Frazier cut the price from $18 to $10.

Parents who were Googling their children's names saw what Frazier was selling. He turned down their requests to stop making the shirts and thought that was the end of it. Last year he heard from a reporter writing an article about a new law in Oklahoma -- the first in the nation -- that had been prompted by his shirts.

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