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UNFLAGGING SUPPORT

Public opinion about the war in Iraq has wavered, but the Bayshore Patriots persist.

Motorists honked and waved as they passed the group of flag-waving men and women on the grassy median of Bayshore Boulevard.

But lately, not everyone has been so friendly toward the Bayshore Patriots, who gather every Friday to show their support for police, firefighters and soldiers.

They've been yelled at. Cursed. Some people make obscene finger gestures. One man even chucked a Slurpee at them.

"I heard it all 40 years ago," said the group's co-founder, Bill Hamblin, 60, a Tampa veteran of the Vietnam War who said he was spit upon by protesters when he returned to America. "It hurt then and it hurts now."

With support for the war in Iraq wavering, times are tough for the Patriots. Once, there were as many as 50 people joining them on their Friday evening demonstrations. Now, they typically attract about 10. Meanwhile, local pacifist groups are reporting a surge in membership.

But the few Patriots who remain are deeply dedicated to their mission.

"The troops aren't quitting, so I'm not quitting," said Paul Diehl, 74, of Tampa. "It's as simple as that."

Every Friday since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Patriots have stood on Bayshore Boulevard and waved American flags to show support for the troops and their country. The group has met President George W. Bush and former Gov. Jeb Bush. They've been thanked by countless soldiers. Firefighters and police sound their sirens as they drive by.

They organize an annual Thanksgiving dinner for personnel at MacDill Air Force Base. Last year, co-founder Julie Whitney received the President's Volunteer Service Award.

They're used to dissenters, Hamblin said.

"But lately, they've been more vocal," he said. "There are a lot more people concerned about the policies that are going on over in Iraq right now and it's overshadowing everything else."

According to a July 23 New York Times/CBS News poll, 51 percent of Americans think the United States should have stayed out of Iraq. Forty-two percent said taking military action was the right thing to do.

The poll also showed two-thirds of Americans continue to say the war is going badly. However, the number who say the war is going "very badly" fell from 45 percent earlier in July to 35 percent.

"The tide turned against the war a while ago," said Chris Ernesto, a leader of St. Pete for Peace, which holds regular antiwar demonstrations. "Now, people are beginning to turn against politicians, Republicans and Democrats alike."

Ernesto said passers-by give his group a more favorable reaction lately. Membership is also on the rise, he said.

Sandra Byers Downing, a leader of the Florida Peace Action Network, said people are becoming more frustrated as the body count in Iraq grows.

"I think there's a real sense of unease because people question President Bush," said Byers Downing, who organizes antiwar demonstrations every Friday morning in Port Richey. "That's why I stand out there. To let them know that others feel like them."

The Patriots say they're neither pro-war nor antiwar. They include Democrats and Republicans. Bianca West-Fehring of Tampa, the president, admitted she does get fed up with the antiwar protesters sometimes.

"Say something positive," she said. "Why is it that their message is always so negative?"

West-Fehring joined the group in 2002. She, too, has noticed a decline in membership. "Some weeks, we used to have 100 people," she said. "But over time, people's lives change."

The core group shows up every week, despite the weather. Some have pledged to continue until the war on terrorism is over. Others say they'll remain as long as troops are in Iraq.

Diehl, of Tampa, who served in the Army during the Korean War, said he feels a little daunted sometimes when there are only three or four other members with him on Friday evenings.

"I start to wonder, is there something kooky about me that I feel like this?" he said. "But there isn't. I just appreciate what we have."

Carrie Weimar can be reached at (813) 226-3416 or cweimar@sptimes.com.

"I heard it all 40 years ago. It hurt then and it hurts now."

Bill Hamblin, Bayshore Patriots co-founder. The Vietnam veteran says protesters spit on him when he returned to America.

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