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130-foot flagpole in Valrico makes a statement

Many of Marty Winters’ neighbors helped raise the flag on a 130-foot pole he erected on his Williams Boulevard property.

Special to the Times

Many of Marty Winters’ neighbors helped raise the flag on a 130-foot pole he erected on his Williams Boulevard property.

VALRICO — Martin "Marty" Winters didn't serve in the military, but his dad, relatives and many friends did. His uncle was killed in Vietnam.

So when Winters, 52, kept hearing about protesters heckling families at funerals for soldiers killed in action, he took it personally.

In colorful terms, he indicated he would like to eject protesters from funerals by kicking their backsides.

Instead, he decided to exercise his right to free speech with a message heard as far away as Afghanistan — an American flag the size of a small house waving from high above the towering trees off Lithia-Pinecrest Road.

"I did it because I have respect for the people who die for you," Winters said.

He said he got support from residents in the Williams Boulevard neighborhood, where he has lived since he was a child, before erecting the patriotic tribute, and many volunteered time and labor to the cause.

A few weeks after the Stars and Stripes started flying on his property, Winters received a package containing a folded American flag that had flown over Camp Eggers in Kabul, Afghanistan. The gift was accompanied by a certificate of appreciation signed by Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell, commander of the training camp there.

Since the flag went up in April, people have driven past the lot and slowed to get a good look. Some stop and pay their respects.

Winters remembered an elderly man from Seffner who told him he had been a prisoner of war. Winters said he pulled up in a van, got out and took pictures of Old Glory.

"He had tears in his eyes," Winters recalled.

Winters' flag went up against a backdrop of controversy over protesters disturbing grieving families at military funerals. In April, a group of U.S. senators introduced a bill that would create buffer zones around military funerals after the Supreme Court ruled that such protests are protected by free speech guarantees in the U.S. Constitution.

The proposed law is aimed primarily at efforts of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. On the church website, leaders say protests at funerals and other venues are intended to warn Americans that God has condemned them for accepting homosexuality and for idolatry of sports and entertainment figures.

Winters, who runs a scrap yard business, said a 130-foot flagpole he bought from a power company in Wauchula a few years ago sat unused in one of his yards. He decided to put it up in a grassy area on his 10-acre homestead.

That turned out to be a monumental undertaking. Winters dug a big hole 20 feet deep to anchor the pole, which is 5 feet in diameter at the base. A crane hoisted the pole into place, and Winters hired a cement truck to pour the concrete base.

He said he crafted the huge spinning ball at the top from a propane tank that he cut in half, welded back together and painted gold. The ball is designed to keep the 30- by 60-foot flag waving in the breeze instead of wrapping around the pole.

Winters also mounted lights and built a platform at treetop level with a structure that enables him to climb inside the pole and retrieve the flag during storms. Without the platform, it takes about 25 people to pull the flag, Winters said. The platform has white panels that reflect red and blue light at night.

He hung the flags of the Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force at the four corners of the platform and plans to add banners for the Coast Guard and National Guard. He also painted the acronyms VFW and POW on the pole and added the Ten Commandments.

Winters said erecting the flag was a community project, and he has heard no complaints. However, at least one neighbor who declined to give her name to preserve friendly relations said she initially supported the effort but felt that some of the additions made it "ostentatious."

Bob Underhill, commander of the American Legion Post in Riverview, said last week he had not seen Winters' flag but he was pleased to hear about it.

"Many people forget if it weren't for the military, they wouldn't have the lifestyle they have," Underhill said.

Winters declined to say how much he spent on the display and said he isn't seeking recognition. A father of three, he said he feels compassion for parents whose children die serving their country.

"Other people's kids give their lives, and people don't have respect for that?" he said. "The money I spent is nothing compared to someone's life."

Susan Marschalk Green can be reached at hillsnews@sptimes.com.

130-foot flagpole in Valrico makes a statement 06/09/11 [Last modified: Thursday, June 9, 2011 5:30am]
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