Robert Rosebrock stands near battered American flags that were hung last… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)
An upside-down American flag is considered a signal of distress.
And that's the feeling Robert Rosebrock had when he looked up and noticed the red, white and blue street-lamp banners outside the Department of Veterans Affairs' West Los Angeles Medical Center were in disarray — tattered, tangled around the poles or flapping upside-down in the breeze.
"It was disgraceful," said Rosebrock, a 71-year-old U.S. Army veteran who arranged for the flags' installation 11 months ago using $12,000 donated by Metabolic Studio, a charitable arm of the Annenberg Foundation.
The condition of the 100 street-light banners was particularly galling, Rosebrock said, because VA police had cited his group for displaying an American flag upside down during a 2009 protest on Wilshire Boulevard. The ACLU sued on Rosebrock's behalf, and in 2011 a federal court ruled that the VA had violated his freedom of speech.
The flag banners were placed on 50 lamp poles a year ago along Wilshire and San Vicente boulevards and dedicated on Flag Day last June 14.
Four months later, however, one set of flags slipped from its brackets, leaving a banner entangled with the pole and the other lying on the ground.
Rosebrock set out to persuade the banner company that installed the flags to remove the damaged ones.
That's when things started to get interesting.
According to Rosebrock, West Los Angeles-based AAA Flag & Banner Mfg. Co. refused to send workers to Brentwood "unless we paid them $350 upfront — something that was never mentioned or included" in the original installation contract. "You'd think banners like these would last longer than a few months," he said.
Nonetheless, Rosebrock paid the fee, withdrawing the remaining $270 left from the Annenberg grant from an account administered by a nonprofit Northern California organization, the California Veterans Benefit Fund. A member of Rosebrock's group, the Old Veterans Guard, kicked in the additional $80.
But before long, more of the flags came loose and started drooping and became "disgracefully wrapped around the poles," Rosebrock said. Although the banner company repaired those without charge, it announced in April that it would no longer fix wind-damaged banners for free.
"Please alert your clients starting today … AAA will need to charge for any pole banner repairs," company President Craig Furst informed employees in an email that was also sent to Rosebrock.
Frustrated, Rosebrock wrote an opinion piece for a Culver City news website about the flags.
"The brackets they used could not withstand a typical windy day in West Los Angeles," Rosebrock wrote. "It was offensive and an insult to all who have defended the Flag, particularly to the patients at the VA hospital."
The opinion piece prompted at least one veteran to complain to the banner company. In response, the company's lawyer fired off an email to Rosebrock ordering him to cease his "campaign of defamatory and disparaging statements" about the firm.
Furst, meanwhile, advised the complaining veteran, a former Army sergeant major, that "your grossly inaccurate statements, slander and malice will not be tolerated. Your vitriol, anger and false statements will be held accountable." Furst signed the message, "Disrespectfully yours, Craig."
He also sent the former sergeant major a copy of an email from Michael St. Clair, the banner company representative who dealt with Rosebrock. St. Clair's email to his boss said he'd learned from the Veterans Benefit Fund that Rosebrock was "no way associated with" the flag project.
"This guy is a nut and a lunatic and has poisoned my life for a year now," St. Clair said of Rosebrock in his email.
Both emails were passed along to Rosebrock.
Sonja Holybee, treasurer of the California Veterans Benefit Fund, acknowledged that Rosebrock arranged for her nonprofit group to be "the money handlers" for the flags. Rosebrock, she said, "found the donations to do the flag project — he's the one that's done everything down there."
Furst contends that his firm's banners are not designed to be permanent fixtures and usually remain up only for specific periods. "It's normal that banners get blown off poles all the time," Furst said. "It's not appropriate to blame the people who made them and put them up."
This month, Furst's company removed three of the damaged flags. Rosebrock said he is lining up new financing and is negotiating with different banner companies to install 100 new flags "on spring-action brackets that bend with the wind." He would like to have the replacements up before Flag Day next month.
He said he has learned that no permit is on file for the current flags with Los Angeles County, which has jurisdiction over the street-light poles outside the VA, even though he said he was billed $200 for a "pole banner installation permit."
St. Clair said it was his company that paid last year's permit fee "to the city" and defended his firm's work. The light post fittings his crews use "are the best brackets there are," he said.
And he won't be sorry if Rosebrock takes his business elsewhere.
"I don't need a lecture in the middle of the night about the desecration of the flag when banners get twisted," he said.