When Charlotte veteran Allen Thornwell lowered his employer’s American flag to half-staff on Memorial Day, he says he did not think to ask permission or consider the possibility that he had done anything wrong.
Instead, the 29-year-old Marine veteran, who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, says he was thinking about his country, the meaning of the holiday, and his best friend, Geoff, another Marine who had killed himself two years ago after returning stateside.
On Tuesday, Thornwell was fired. A manager at the placement service that arranged the vet’s job at Time Warner Cable in Charlotte told him that the company was disturbed by Thornwell’s “passion for the flag and (his) political affiliation.”
Contacted this week, Thornwell said he remains in shock over what happened.
“I’m not even mad right now,” he says. ” I don’t know what kind of moral compass you need to fire a veteran on Memorial Day for lowering the flag.”
A Time Warner Cable spokesman confirmed Friday that the Marine veteran “was no longer under contract” with the company but declined further comment.
Thornwell said he landed the job through Principal Solutions Group, a technology-based employment service. Contacted Friday, Thornwell’s placement manager, Nicki Warren, said she was not allowed to discuss personnel matters.
Charlotte attorney Murph Archibald, whom Thornwell called after the incident, says his client should have never lost his job.
“It’s disgraceful,” says Archibald, a Vietnam vet. “He didn’t do anything wrong. He’s a veteran working on Memorial Day who corrected what he thought was a disrespectful flying of the American flag… I would have taken it down myself.”
Whether Time Warner was improperly displaying the flag during the country’s annual tribute to its dead veterans is a matter of debate. The U.S. Flag Code, which offers guidance on how to fly the flag during holidays, says the banner should be at half-staff until noon on Memorial Day then returned to its normal position. Thornwell said the incident took place around 2:30 p.m.
Thornwell, who was discharged in 2014, said he was aware of the holiday protocol but was moved to lower the flag anyway. He wishes now that he had asked permission.
“I didn’t think of it as the property of Time Warner Cable,” he says. “It’s everybody’s flag.”
An angry reaction
Thornwell began Marine boot camp less than week after he graduated from Phillip O. Berry in 2005.
His mother, Teresa Magaña of Charlotte, describes her son as a quiet and calm man who is passionate about the military, his country and the “rights of people.”
After his tour in Afghanistan in 2008-09, she says she noticed that he began to show a greater need for order and for having things done the right way.
Thornwell was a month into a six-month contract with Time Warner when he says he got a call from work on the morning of Memorial Day, asking him to work a 2 to 7 p.m. shift. Thornwell specialized in technical support and served as a radio operator in the military. At Time Warner, he amounted to a trouble-shooter, keeping watch for service outages, then quickly assembling a team to respond and fix the problems.
On Monday, he arrived at the company’s service center off Arrowood Road having left his security badge at home. A boss sent him to pick up a replacement. Waiting outside the security office, he noticed the nearby flag at full staff. Without a word to anyone, Thornwell says he marched, Marine-style, to the pole, lowered the flag to a midway point, came to full attention, then about-faced and walked away. He didn’t salute. He says Marines don’t salute when out of uniform.
Inside the security building, Thornwell said he was told by one of the guards that “It’s company policy that no one touches the flagpole.”
By the time Thornwell left — and only a few minutes after he had lowered it — the flag was back at full staff.
Thornwell said he reacted angrily at what he took as a sign of disrespect to him and other vets. He can be heard cursing twice in a short video he shot at the scene with his phone. He said he wanted to send a message to military personnel around the world that “this is what the people back home think about us.”
The Marine veteran says he was never disrespectful or out of control. In fact, he said the security guard escorting him back to his workstation told him, “I fought. I understand.”
That night on Facebook, Thornwell posted the photos he took of the flag at full- and half-staff, and a brief video of himself talking to the camera as he walked back to his job site. He stamped the footage “Timewarner.”
He put this title on the post: “So many years wasted. I’m telling you … PEOPLE DON’T GIVE A F***.”
The next day before work, he says he got a call from Warren: “Can you tell me what happened yesterday?”
Time Warner, she told him, had canceled his contract.
Failure to communicate
Did the company over-react? Did Thornwell? Who can say for sure?
Retired Marine Colonel Chris Woodbridge, though, calls the incident “a very sad misunderstanding” that illustrates a widening gap between the country and its military.
Today, less than 1 percent of Americans wear a uniform. “Not only do the vast majority not serve, but they don’t really know anybody who does,” says Woodbridge, editor of the monthly Gazette.
Thus, their perception of the men and women in uniform gravitates to stereotypical extremes: from hyper-patriotic coverage that focuses on honor and courage to more critical depictions of loner vets who are shell-shocked and violent, he says.
On the other hand, he says, veterans can experience a strong sense of alienation when they return to something “they don’t recognize and they don’t understand. Sometimes symbols, like the flag, mean a lot. Because they represent something of an ideal…(an) ideal we fought for.”
Thornwell strongly disputes the notion that he fits the stereotype of the displaced and brooding vet. He does acknowledge that he is still dealing with post-traumatic stress and other emotional problems left from his service, but he says his actions at the flagpole were never excessive.
In fact, Thornwell attributes his behavior to deeper emotions he felt throughout the day about his country, his dead friend, and his own service. For the first time in his life, he says, he understood the true meaning of Memorial Day, and he felt it, too.
Now he needs a job.
First, he would like an apology — for him and other vets. Researcher Maria David contributed.
Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS
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