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November 30, 2023

Mississippi Republicans seek removal of pride flag from Veterans Affairs cemetery

Mississippi Republicans seek removal of pride flag from Veterans Affairs cemetery

Congressional Republicans from Mississippi are demanding that the Department of Veterans Affairs remove a temporary Pride flag from Biloxi National Cemetery, arguing its presence is disrespectful to veterans.

In a letter Monday to Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough, the five GOP lawmakers, including Sens. Roger Wicker and Cindy Hyde-Smith, called adding the flag during Pride Month a “political stunt.”

“Cemeteries should be places for reflection and respect, not public virtue signaling,” says the letter, which was also signed by Reps. Mike Ezell, Michael Guest and Trent Kelly. “Our veterans expect the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide services, not promote controversial ideologies.”

A Pride flag flies with U.S. flags at the entrance to the Biloxi VA Medical Center and the Biloxi VA Veterans Cemetery in Biloxi, Miss., on Monday.WXXV

Asked for comment on the letter, VA press secretary Terrence Hayes said Tuesday that the department has “received the letter and will respond to our Congressional partners directly.”

“Protest is a fundamental part of our democracy, and we respect anyone’s right to protest VA for any reason,” Hayes said, adding that “VA facilities fly the flag as a symbol of VA’s commitment to inclusion and as a tribute to the service and sacrifice of LGBTQ+ Veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors.”

The flag was added to a display of American flags last week. McDonough has authorized all VA facilities to fly the Pride flag — designed by Army veteran Gilbert Baker — for up to 30 days during Pride Month.

A spokesperson for the Biloxi VA, Shaun Shenk, told WLOX-TV of Biloxi last week that the flag is a symbol of inclusion.

“There’s nothing more military than that flag, because not only does it represent a group of veterans who were traditionally marginalized by society, but the person who created the flag was also an Army veteran,” said Shenk, a disabled Iraq War vet.

Shenk did not respond to a request for comment from NBC News on Monday evening.

It’s unclear how many VA facilities and cemeteries are flying the flag. In the letter, the lawmakers contend they should all be removed.

“We demand that you direct the Biloxi National Cemetery and other Veterans Affairs facilities to remove the LGBT Pride flag and reinstate the United States flag to its rightful place,” they wrote.

The VA estimates there are over 1 million LGBTQ veterans in the U.S., and studies have found they experience suicidal thoughts at higher rates and are less likely to seek care, in part because of fears of discrimination.

Dareh Gregorian

Dareh Gregorian is a politics reporter for NBC News.

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