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Air Force veteran ordered to remove American flag face covering for grocery store job — but he's not having any of it

'Why would anybody for any reason be offended by the American flag, the stars and stripes?'

Image source: WCTI-TV video screenshot

Air Force veteran Gary Dean told WCTI-TV he'd been wearing his American flag face covering for his job at the Food Lion in Havelock, North Carolina, without any problems for months.

Image source: WCTI-TV video screenshot

But Dean said a manager informed him Tuesday afternoon out of the blue that his patriotic face covering was verboten — specifically because it showed the stars and stripes, the station said.

"Apparently corporate came down and said 'somebody was offended by the image of the American flag on the face covering,'" Dean recalled to WCTI.

Image source: WCTI-TV video screenshot

But the station said the 69-year-old military vet wasn't having any of it — and Dean quit.

'Out of principle'

"As a veteran, my dad being a World War II hero, my best friend killed in Vietnam, out of respect for them I can't just say ... 'I'll take my flag and put it in my pocket,'" he told the station, noting such a concession would be against his values. "I had to quit, out of principle."

Dean added that it also was shocking that the sight of an American flag would be offensive to anyone, particularly in a military town, WCTI noted.

"Why would anybody for any reason be offended by the American flag, the stars and stripes?" he asked the station.

What did Food Lion have to say?

WCTI said it reached out to Food Lion, and the company replied that while it respects the American flag, corporate policy "prohibits associates from wearing clothing with writing, insignia, or symbols."

Image source: WCTI-TV video screenshot

Here's the company's full statement via the station:

At Food Lion, we have great respect for the American flag. Like many other organizations, we also have policies that guide the attire and conduct of associates in the workplace. As part of our effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to protect the well-being of our associates and customers, we've required associates to either wear reusable face masks provided by Food Lion or choose to wear a different face covering while working. However, all face coverings must adhere to standards set by the company and communicated to each of our more than 77,000 associates. The policy prohibits associates from wearing clothing with writing, insignia or symbols. The dress code is meant to ensure a consistent and professional representation of our associates inside of our stores.

But WCTI noted that the Havelock store does feature reserved parking spaces for military veterans marked with American flags.

'An emotional subject for me'

Dean told the station he served in the Air Force from 1970 to 1976: "Four of those were active, two of those were inactive reserve."

But while many years have passed since then, he keeps those memories alive in his home, which is full of patriotic objects. Dean showed a reporter from the station a photo album of images from when he was in the service — and some of them aren't easy for Dean to revisit.

Image source: WCTI-TV video screenshot

"That's my friend who was killed in Vietnam, he was a ranger," he told WCTI, pointing at a picture of himself and another man. "David Toler. Got shot right through the heart, they brought him home. That's an emotional subject for me. When you lose a friend that is fighting for your freedoms, you get angry."

Image source: WCTI-TV video screenshot

Dean added to the station, "You get very angry when people disrespect the flag."

He also told WCTI that the American flag face covering he was using is a print and wants to make sure it's clear he wasn't using an actual American flag to cover his face. But while he's not angry at the store managers, Dean is still perplexed at why it was so offensive.

"I love this country," he told the station. "I love that my dad went off and fought for my country, nearly got killed for this country but came back and raised a family."

Image source: WCTI-TV video screenshot

"I love everything about that flag," Dean told WCTI. "So, yeah, that is my priority."

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