© St. Petersburg Times, published April 18, 2003
DUNEDIN -- About a month ago Ed Conrad got so worked up over the media reports of Americans protesting the war in Iraq that he decided to get out and make a statement of his own.
He calls it Operation Patriot For God and Country.
The 68-year-old retired Marine Corps master sergeant has spent his mornings over the past several weeks standing on a sidewalk in front of his church, Dunedin Alliance, flying an American flag and waving at motorists and others who pass by.
His bright red hat advertises that he is a retired serviceman. So does his matching shirt. So does the license plate on his van parked in the church lot at 1289 Michigan Blvd.
But it's the broad, brass belt buckle that, perhaps, makes the biggest statement.
On the face of the 30-year-old, nearly 4-inch buckle is an engraved depiction of the raising of the American flag at Iwo Jima in 1945 during World War II.
"I'm just doing what I feel like I should do," Conrad said, as an American flag attached to a stick fluttered over his shoulder. "We're praying for the families and those who have lost loved ones over there" in Iraq.
One after another, cars, trucks and motorcycles zoom by honking their horns in approval.
A few sneer or give him a thumbs-down. But the majority of passers-by are like the woman in the black Ford Explorer Sport who recently leaned on her horn, smiled broadly and waved feverishly at Conrad.
"He's out there with flags and people are responding to him," said Linda Franck, Conrad's daughter. "He's been in Vietnam twice and is just an awesome person -- for such a burly guy, he's got a heart of gold and such a gentle spirit."
Jack Gridley, who spent four years in the Marine Corps, was out riding his mountain bike along Michigan Boulevard when he stopped to greet Conrad with the Marine Corp motto, "Semper fi."
Short for semper fidelis, it means "always faithful," and is often an invitation to share stories about service in the military -- which the two men did.
"It's incredible," Gridley, a retired Air Force master sergeant, said of Conrad's act before pedaling away. "I think it's done a lot of good."
"If people disagree, at least they're in a country where they can do that," he added. "If they were in another country ... "
A few weeks ago, Conrad met a couple from Yugoslavia.
Though they spoke little English, Conrad said their message became clear when he gave the woman a small flag.
"She put it over her heart and started patting it," he said. "You could see it in their eyes and smiles that they were with me and what I'm doing -- I almost lost it."
-- Leon M. Tucker can be reached at 445-4167 or firstname.lastname@example.org .