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PHOTO WALL LOSS ELICITS ANGER

Some are irked that the military display was removed during a store makeover.

For years, they stood silent sentry duty, watching over a steady stream of shoppers passing by at the Wal-Mart Supercenter on Broad Street.

Men and women serving their country in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere shared space on the oversized bulletin board with their comrades in arms from conflicts gone by. Dozens of photos of military personnel covered the board as family members updated pictures and added new ones.

Then one day it was gone.

The store has been undergoing an extensive remodeling as part of the company's nationwide Project Impact initiative, and store manager Steve Smith says that the Wall of Honor was removed because it didn't fit with the upgrades.

"It was not part of the fresh, clean, uncluttered look,'' he said. "That piece did not fit into the schematic of the new design."

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Ashley Hardie confirmed Wednesday that the removal of the bulletin board was part of the company's effort to achieve a consistent theme in all of its remodeled stores.

That explanation isn't sitting well with at least one customer.

"That's the biggest bunch of crap I've ever heard," said John Stenger of Brooksville, a former captain in the Army Rangers.

Stenger, 72, served four tours of duty in Vietnam and is given to speaking his mind. Like when he got off the airplane at Newark International Airport on his return from the war and a protester called him a baby killer and prepared to spit at him.

"I told that onion-head, if he did he'd be eating through a straw in a hospital for six weeks," Stenger recalled.

The photo display at Wal-Mart "was great. It had pictures of people from today and some World War II shots," the decorated veteran said.

He said friends asked him to put up some of his own photos, but he declined out of deference to those he felt have contributed more to their country.

Soon after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, two women put a cardboard box on a table near the bulletin board for people to drop in photos of loved ones serving in the conflicts. It soon became a full-blown 5- by 15-foot community salute to local heroes.

"It was something that was done in conjunction with Veterans Day, and it didn't come down," Smith said. "It took on a life of its own."

The bulletin board in this and other Wal-Marts, he said, was supposed to hold news and photos showing the company's community involvement and other related items.

Sometimes, Smith said, there were issues with the photo board.

People at times would move pictures around, putting their own family members in more prominent spots. "It became contentious," he said, recalling the complaints he and other managers at the store fielded about the photos.

Since the board came down, Smith said he has not been approached directly by anyone complaining, but "I've heard grumblings."

The photos have been collected into a scrapbook that is available to the public in the store's Vision Center.

People should not interpret this move as a sign that Wal-Mart is turning its back on military personnel and their families, Smith said.

"I understand that take on things, but it was not intended that way," he said. "Certainly Wal-Mart supports veterans organizations. We've had them out front of the store collecting donations; we support them with our grant program.

"Wal-Mart has done an enormous amount for veterans," he continued. "(The board) was one option within a broad program. I hope people will not make a generalization (about the company) based upon one facet. Unfortunately, people will."

Stenger, for one, isn't buying it.

"I saw on television the other night something about how Wal-Mart personifies Americana," he said. "What a bunch of crap."

Stenger said he's called the store at least five times, but has been unable to reach anyone to talk to about the photo display.

Stenger is a member of the Disabled American Veterans, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion. He predicted that once word gets around to the various veterans groups in Hernando County, a louder outcry will be heard.

"I'll bet they'll find some room then," he said.

What irks him, he said, is that "they allowed the board to be there when the war was popular." Now that the fighting is fading from the front pages, the attitude seems to have changed.

"But it's not over," he said. "They're still over there getting their butts shot up."

Greg Hamilton can be reached at hamilton@sptimes.com or at (352) 754-6113.

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