HAVELOCK, Craven County (WCTI) — A now-former employee of an area supermarket says he quit his job this week after being told he could not wear a face covering depicting the American flag while at work.
Gary Dean says he left his job at the Food Lion in Havelock and is shocked the American flag would be offensive to anyone, especially in a military town.
The 69-year-old's home is full of patriotic paraphernalia, and Dean, who once anchored at NewsChannel 12, is a veteran himself.
"1970-1976," Dean said of the years he served in the United States Air Force. "Four of those were active, two of those were inactive reserve."
He showed NewsChannel 12 a photo album of memories and says memories of his service are an emotional subject,
"That's my friend who was killed in Vietnam, he was a ranger," Dean said, 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. You get very angry when people disrespect the flag."
It was that anger, Dean says, that caused him to quit his job at the Food Lion's Havelock location Tuesday. Dean says a manager approached him that afternoon, telling him he could no longer wear his face covering with the American flag printed on it.
"Apparently corporate came down and said 'somebody was offended by the image of the American flag on the face covering,'" he said.
Dean says he had been wearing the face covering for months without issue and says when asked to take off his flag, he felt it was against his values.
"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 no, I'll take my flag and put it in my pocket," Dean explained. "I had to quit, out of principle."
NewsChannel 12 reached out to Food Lion, and the company said that while they respect the American flag, their policy "prohibits associates from wearing clothing with writing, insignia, or symbols."
The company's statement in full is below:
"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."
The Havelock location does, however, have reserved parking spaces for military veterans marked off with American flags.
Dean says no excuse can justify the disrespect of the flag, and says, while he is not angry with the store's managers, he does disagree with the corporate policy.
"I love this country," he said. "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. I love everything about that flag. So, yeah, that is my priority."
He also adds the face covering is just a print and wants to make sure it is clear he is not using an actual American flag to cover his face. With that fact cleared up, Dean questions why -- and who -- he could have offended.
"Why would anybody for any reason be offended by the American flag, the stars and stripes?" he asked.