For Illinois firefighter David Flowers Jr., it's not just a matter of pride and patriotism — it's a matter of preserving history.
“My dad was a fireman for 26 years in Maywood," just west of Chicago, Flowers told WFLD-TV. "I took over his locker. And on the outside of his locker I have a Marine Corps decal … it's been there for well over 30 years."
Flowers told WBBM-TV his dad's decal given to Vietnam veterans is "irreplaceable."
But according to an order from Maywood Fire Department Chief Craig Bronaugh, all stickers and decals must come off lockers and helmets — including the Marine Corps decal handed to down to Flowers from his dad, and even images of the American flag, the station reported.
"I take great offense to that,” Flowers, who is the union president for Maywood firefighters, told WFLD. He said the order is a morale killer.
So Flowers and three fellow firefighters refused to obey Bronaugh's directive.
The chief suspended them, WBBM reported. More suspensions could follow on Wednesday.
The suspensions were handed down after an hour-long meeting Tuesday between Bronough and a representative from Service Employees International Union Local 73.
Union spokesman Adam Rosen told WBBM he's “shocked” such an order would be given, particularly in the run-up to the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
The chief told WFLD his decision "has nothing to do with the American flag," noting that his order didn't even mention American flags — rather, he said, it's about keeping things "uniform" in the department.
The four suspended firefighters said they were told the order had to do with racial discord in the ranks, according to WBBM. But the four firefighters in question — a black man, a native Cuban, and two white men — told the station no disharmony exists.
The chief gave WFLD an image from one locker of a smoking monkey, which he said could prove problematic.
“All it would take is for a visitor from off the street who could be there for any reason, whether it's to visit the fire station or to be treated for a medical emergency, or need the fire department for whatever reason, to see these pictures and to draw the conclusion that there are racist firefighters working in this fire house,” Bronaugh said.
Except, the firefighters said, that smoking monkey image has been gone for at least a couple of years.
When the station asked the chief about the apparent time discrepancy, he refused to explain, and later sent a photo of a locker with a golf sticker.
A former Maywood firefighter told WBBM he put the smoking monkey image on the locker 10 years ago to "jam up" a fellow firefighter about his smoking habit and "nothing more."
“If it's something offensive, I could see that and guys don't have a problem with falling in line," Flowers told WFLD, "but when you're talking about the American flag, or as in my case a Marine Corps decal, I mean people take pride in this — this is America, this is where we work."
Firefighters told WBBM the problems started last month after some of them decided to replace a tattered American flag in one of Maywood’s firehouses. Then the new flag disappeared early on Aug. 23, WBBM reported, noting that Bronaugh's order was issued last week.
The firefighters are meeting with Bronough about the controversy at 1 p.m. Wednesday, WGN-TV reported.
UPDATE 11:07 p.m.: The suspended firefighters can return to work, Chief Bronaugh said Wednesday, according to WMAQ-TV.
"I have made the decision to put a department-issued flag on every locker in the firefighters' locker room," Bronaugh said, WMAQ noted. "I want everyone to be clear that there was never an issue of disposing of the flag." Other stickers and decals will be reviewed, the chief added.
Still union reps will ask for the chief’s resignation, WGN-TV reported, adding that they've also filed charges against the chief with the labor relations board for creating a hostile work environment and accusing a lieutenant of racism.
Flowers told WMAQ that he and his father were the first black father and son in the department, which gives the Marine Corps decal on the locker he inherited from his dad "sentimental value."
Don Albanese told WMAQ he agreed to remove several stickers — but the flag on his locker was off-limits.
"I said, 'You know what? The one thing I won't do is I'm not going to remove the flag on my locker,'" he told WMAQ. "No one sees it but us. We're all brothers here."
Evergito Herrera — who's been with the department for 25 years and came to the U.S. from Cuba — told WMAQ his pride in the flag is something he doesn't take for granted.
"I come from a country where I couldn't do that," he told WMAQ. "The government would tell me what to do and that's why my parents took me out of Cuba."