Biloxi VA leaders respond following Congressman Ezell’s request to remove rainbow flag
WASHINGTON, D.C. (WLOX) - Mississippi’s 4th District Congressman is adding his voice to those calling to remove a rainbow flag flying at the entrance to the Biloxi VA Medical Center. The rainbow flag was added to a display of American flags on Thursday, June 1, to commemorate LGBTQ+ Pride Month.
WLOX News obtained a letter Rep. Mike Ezell sent Friday to Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough and Dr. Stephanie Repasky, who serves as Interim Medical Center Director of the Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System. In it, he states, “While I believe everyone should be treated with respect, I take serious issue with any flag flying at a VA facility that promotes social policy positions or political statements.”
Rep. Ezell says only government and military flags, such as POW/MIA and flags of the U.S. Armed Forces, should be flown or displayed alongside the American flag on VA property.
“For these reasons, I am writing to request that this flag, and any other flags promoting social policy positions or political statements, be removed.”
In 2022, Sec. McDonough authorized all VA-owned facilities to fly the rainbow flag for up to 30 days each June to send LGBTQ+ veterans a message that the VA “is creating a safe and inclusive environment” for them. A spokesman for the Biloxi VA told WLOX News Thursday that Sec. McDonough’s memo left the final decision to individual facilities, but Biloxi was not alone in choosing the display the flag.
The spokesperson said it’s simply a symbol of inclusion and all veterans should know, “If you wore the uniform, the VA is here for you.”
“Diversity and inclusion has always been apart of the VA,” said Shaun Shenk, Chief of Community and Public Affairs at the Biloxi VA. “Every June, we celebrate the LGBTQ recognition month. As part of that recognition, we decided to put the flag up.”
Shenk, a disabled Iraq War veteran, highlights how the mission of the medical facility stretches far beyond physical care of patients — it also includes serving as advocates to all who served the country.
“It demonstrates how veterans can change the face of their communities and can carry the torch of diversity and inclusion,” he added. “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.”
According to the VA, an estimated one million veterans identify as LGBTQ+. And while those veterans experience mental illness and suicidal thoughts at far higher rates than those outside their community, they are significantly less likely to seek routine care, largely because of fears about discrimination.
“[It’s] important to allow them to feel comfortable in our facility and to have open conversations with providers,” said Shenk.
Shenk also notes that other events the Biloxi VA recognizes through their Special Emphasis Program include Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Juneteenth and Veteran Affairs Police Week.
As of now, there is no indication the Biloxi VA will act on Congressman Ezell’s call to take down the Pride Flag.
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