After the death of nine firefighters in Charleston, S.C., last month, Concord Fire Chief Kenneth Willette, leader of the Fire Chiefs' Association of Massachusetts, asked state public safety officials to lower flags across the state to half-staff.
He was turned down.
But only weeks later, after suffering a far more personal tragedy, Willette contacted state officials again, making the same request for his nephew, Staff Sergeant Daniel A. Newsome of Chicopee, who was killed in Iraq on June 27. The state, he said, should revisit its policy, long reserved for political leaders, so that fallen service members from Massachusetts can be remembered with the lowering of American flags.
Yesterday, a day after the first meeting of the Governor's Advisory Council on Veterans Services, Governor Deval Patrick ordered all flags at state buildings to be flown at half-staff any day a funeral is held for a Massachusetts service member killed while serving the country in a war zone. The flags will be lowered tomorrow, when Willette is buried in Chicopee.
"At a time of sorrow and grief, the family was very comforted," Willette said. "It is something that will be very visible when you drive down the street to the cemetery on Thursday.
"To see the flags lowered to half-staff, it will just comfort us. God forbid it should happen, and it will, the families of soldiers who follow Danny in death will be afforded the same honor."
With Patrick's order, Massachusetts will join several other states that have chosen to honor fallen service members by flying the flag at half-staff . Last week President Bush signed a bill that requires all federal agencies to comply with a governor's request that they fly their flags at half-staff to honor fallen service members. Previously, it was voluntary.
Massachusetts is involved in a debate over whether lowering the flag diminishes the honor and whether some politicians are making an anti war statement by calling attention to the number of American casualties in Iraq.
"If there is a political agenda, I don't like it," said Gregory O'Roak , past commander of American Legion Post 22 in Whitman. "But if it's done out of respect, I have no problem."
State Senator Scott Brown, Republican of Wrentham, who has been in the Army for 28 years and serves as a lawyer in the National Guard, praised Patrick for "doing the right thing."
"If he wants to take it upon himself to honor people who have died for their state and country I'm 1,000 percent behind him," said Brown.
"I'm sure if the soldiers were alive they would appreciate it, and as a member of the armed forces, I can tell you I certainly appreciate it."
Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray, chairman of the Governor's Advisory Council on Veterans Services, said service members who are killed while on military duty deserve to be recognized with an honor once reserved for political leaders.
"Their level of public service far exceeds that of elected and appointed public officials," said Murray. "They put their life on the line. We don't go to work every day worrying about whether we're going to return. It's important that everybody remembers that."
Willette said the flag should be lowered as often as necessary to show that the nation is mourning the deaths of its service members.
"As a family member who is now carrying that pain, I say do it. Do it as often as it takes for people to know the sacrifice soldiers and their families are making. If we can afford that honor to politicians when they die, we can afford it to our fallen warriors, " he said.