Walker Police were summoned to the city’s McDonald’s restaurant on Saturday night when an Army veteran demanded that the restaurant fly its U.S. flag at half-staff — and threatened to a launch a protest with hundreds of veterans if the restaurant did not comply.
The incident began when Douglas Ducote, a retired Army veteran and the CEO of Veterans United for Justice, a Walker-based veterans group, was driving home from dinner with two others at about 6 p.m. Saturday. He passed the Walker McDonald’s and noticed its U.S. flag was flying at full height.
That didn’t sit well with Ducote ever since a Black Hawk helicopter from a National Guard unit based in Hammond crashed off the Florida coast during a training exercise on Tuesday, killing the seven marines and four Louisiana National Guardsmen on board.
In the crash’s aftermath, the governor Louisiana ordered state buildings to fly their flags at half-staff — although the order does not extend to private businesses, Ducote acknowledged in a lengthy post published to his group’s Facebook page.
Still, Ducote decided to give the fast-food restaurant chain a call to see if the company would comply with the order anyway.
What followed was an escalation of tensions, and a conversation that quickly took a turn for the worse.
When Ducote called the restaurant from his car, an employee told him the request was “above something that she could handle herself,” Ducote wrote. The employee then told him to call the restaurant’s Baton Rouge corporate office on Monday — and hung up.
Ducote, who says he served four Army combat tours as a helicopter flight engineer, was not going to be so easily dissuaded. He made the first U-turn he could find, walked up to the front counter of the McDonald’s, and demanded to speak to a manager — in a confrontation that a woman recorded and posted to Youtube.
“Would you like me to have about 200 veterans standing outside your restaurant in an hour, protesting that you won’t lower that flag?” Ducote can be heard telling an employee on the video.
“We can’t do nothing like that,” the employee said as she stood behind the counter. “We have people over us and we can’t do that.”
“It’s a flag,” Ducote said in response. “It’s on a pole. You just lower it at half-mast and you’re done with it. Do you think McDonald’s is going to fire you for doing that?”
At some point in the discussion, Walker Police received a report of a disturbance and arrived at the restaurant within minutes, said Capt. John Sharp, a department spokesman. In the video, an officer can be seeing walking into the restaurant and politely leading Ducote out.
“Sir, we can’t do that,” the officer said to Ducote in the video. “I’m a veteran too, but we can’t do that. You can’t do what you’re doing here.”
Eventually, Ducote left. As it turns out, the officer was himself a Marine veteran, Ducote says. The situation ended without an arrest or citation issued, and no charges have been filed, Sharp said.
“Certainly I understand his point of view,” Sharp said of Ducote. “Obviously we support the troops as well as the governor’s orders, but there was no crime committed.”
Ducote later spoke with the owner of the McDonald’s by phone — who told him that his family, too, was a family of veterans, and that he was truly sorry for the confusion. The owner could not be reached for comment early Sunday afternoon.
By early Sunday morning, the restaurant’s flag had been lowered to half-staff.
“It’s no big deal,” Ducote acknowledged later. “I’m a very passionate person to start with when it comes to patriotism, but with the crash and dealing with that, and having serving four combat tours myself, my emotion were already running pretty high.”
But he also said, “I think I probably would have handled it the same way I did. There was no reason to treat anyone the way they treated me on the phone. It was complete and utter disrespect. That’s what set this whole thing off.”
This was not Ducote’s first effort to make sure a U.S. flag is being flown properly. When he sees something wrong with a flag flying outside a business, he makes a point to pull over and inform them — like when a flag is flying at full-staff instead of half-staff on Memorial Day, or when a flag is tattered or broken apart with time.
Within the last decade, Ducote has even gone out of his way to buy more than 60 flags for businesses when they tell him they don’t have the money for a new flag.
Looking back on all of his efforts, Ducote says this was certainly the first time police have arrived.
After Ducote left the restaurant on Saturday night, he took to Facebook to detail his version of events. His first post that described the incident racked up more than 1,300 Facebook comments, as well as more than 4,500 “likes” and 6,200 shares as of early Sunday afternoon.
“I sure didn’t expect it to go viral like it did,” Ducote said. “It was easy to see that there’s a lot of people not just here in Louisiana but all over the country that are very patriotic as I am and are just as concerned about a flag as I am.”
But in the original post, Ducote also acknowledged that some may be questioning why he would take such a hard-line stance over a flag’s position.
“After all, ‘it’s just a flag’,” Ducote wrote. “But unless you have fought for ‘just a flag’, and lost Brothers and Sister’s fighting under ‘just a flag’, had them come home in a coffin draped in ‘just a flag’, then I understand how you might not get it … and that’s ok.”
Follow Daniel Bethencourt on Twitter: @_dbethencourt.