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Scope of emotional flag ceremony extended

Local veterans gather each Friday to honor one of their own at the Richard I. Bong World War II Heritage Center. Rain, snow or shine, members of the Richard I. Bong American Legion Post 435, the Thomas F. Stein VFW Post 1091 and center volunteers raise a flag to remember the life of a deceased World War II veteran. It remains flying for a week.

"I try to every Friday go out for the retirement and changing of the flag," said Bob Fuhrman, executive director of the center. "It doesn't fail to give me goose bumps."

Jen Van Alstine, a tourist information specialist for the Superior/Douglas County Convention and Visitor's Bureau who works in the center's lobby, agrees.

"It's very touching," she said. "It's so neat to see the different generations of families come ... and it's such an honor for the whole family."

More families will be able to feel that sense of pride. The Flags of Honor program, launched in 2003, has been opened to veterans from all eras, not just World War II.

"Now it's for everybody," said Dan Knight, adjutant for American Legion Post 435.

The program was the brainchild of Hope Swenson, a center volunteer from Poplar, and American Legion member John Vaski. Originally, it honored the men and women who served in World War II.

Swenson's husband, Clifford, was the first veteran honored. He served in the U.S. Navy as an electrician's mate in Normandy, Sicily and the Pacific. Along with the flag-raising, his picture and biography were on display in the center lobby all week. The program made an impact.

"I just felt so personally involved," Swenson said. "He had one week where everybody knew him."

Most recently, a flag was flown for Kenneth Lintelmann of Poplar. He joined the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1941, serving in intelligence as a carbine marksman and submachine gun expert in the European theater.

"When his flag was raised, it was a very emotional time for me," said his wife, Ruth. "It made me proud to be an American."

The flag ceremony is conducted with reverence.

"These guys are really dedicated," Fuhrman said. "They think it's important for their buddies and for the guys that they've never met, and the gals that they've never met."

Flags have flown for area World War II veterans as well as those from Chicago, the Twin Cities and other areas nationwide. Copies of their pictures and biographies are kept at the center.

"For a little museum, I think it's grown quite big," Swenson said of the program.

But some requests have had to be turned away because the veteran was not from World War II. Opening the program up to all veterans makes sense, Vaski said.

"Everybody's entitled to it," he said, from those who served in World War I to the current war in Iraq.

"A veteran is a veteran," Knight said.

The center's board of directors approved the request, Fuhrman said. The move will not compromise the center's mission to remember those who fought and those on the home front who worked and waited during World War II.

"I don't think it's outside the realm of what we do," Fuhrman said. "I think it invites people to participate more."

For Van Alstine, it offers a chance to remember her brother, Adam. The U.S. Marine was killed by a roadside bomb in February of 2006 while serving his country in Iraq. Van Alstine said the family plans to raise a flag for him in June.

"I'm really looking forward to it," she said.

Maria Lockwood covers public safety. E-mail mlockwood

or call (715) 395-5025.