Su Van Nguyen fought the communists as an officer in the South Vietnamese army. He endured seven years of torture, hard labor and indoctrination in a communist reeducation camp, he says, before finally coming to America with his family nine years ago. He didn't expect he'd be refighting the war here.
But that's exactly what Nguyen, 53, and countless other Vietnamese refugees say they've experienced at schools and community events with the display, usually inadvertently, of the red flag with yellow star of the communist Vietnamese government -- a flag that, in Nguyen's words, represents "no freedom and no human rights."
For him and others, this symbol of a system they abhor has no place at their school international nights and community diversity celebrations, on the walls of their day-care centers or in the pages of their health pamphlets -- to name just a few places where the Vietnam flag has flown, and drawn protest, in recent years.
Nguyen joined the battle four years ago when the communist flag appeared on a letter sent home from Mosby Woods Elementary School in Fairfax County. He and the parents of 20 other students protested its inclusion in a diversity celebration, and school officials quickly apologized, promising to display instead the flag of the former South Vietnam.
It was just the start. Now the issue is beginning to stir passions beyond the Vietnamese American community, which has at least 45,000 members in the Washington area. Virginia delegates are scheduled to vote today on a bill that would settle the question in favor of the yellow flag with red stripes representing the former government of South Vietnam.
The measure, sponsored by Del. Robert D. Hull (D-Fairfax), survived an effort by the U.S. State Department to kill it yesterday, easily passing its second reading in a voice vote.
The bill, which the State Department said would be the first law of its type in the nation, would mandate that "the only flag depicting the country of Vietnam that may be displayed in any state-sponsored public function shall be the flag of the former Republic of Vietnam."
While seemingly of limited interest, the bill actually has broad reach -- affecting public schools, colleges, universities and other state institutions -- and touches many people at their emotional core. It has aroused sharp complaints from the Vietnamese Embassy and has highlighted divisions within the Vietnamese American community.
Although many see the issue as nothing less than a fight for the soul of that community, others feel that it's time, nearly 28 years after the fall of Saigon, to stop symbolically fighting the war and move on.
Caught in the middle are school officials, whose parents want one flag to represent Vietnam but whose textbooks give them another.
At Anthony Lane Elementary School in the Alexandria area of Fairfax County, a Vietnamese American group wanted the communist flag on display in the cafeteria with other nations' flags taken down. Principal Helene Brower agreed to remove the offending flag earlier this month, but said she did so because the fire marshal told her that all the flags had to come down anyway.
And in Montgomery County, the communist flag was replaced by the South Vietnamese banner in the school system's "Hall of Nations" display at the request of a Vietnamese counselor and parent advocate a few years ago. "We serve the refugees who fled Vietnam," said the counselor, Tuyet Tran.
Not all schools were as accommodating. Vietnamese community activist Nguyen Thi Le, who fled Vietnam in 1975, the year the war ended, said administrators at three Fairfax schools -- Robinson Secondary and Frost and Poe middle schools -- refused her entreaties.
"I asked them, 'Do you fly the Nazi flag? Why are you flying this?' " said Nguyen, 67. "It is very painful."
She said the administrators replied that they couldn't take down the communist flag without approval from higher-ups.
Last week, the school system weighed in, as Fairfax Deputy School Superintendent Alan Leis instructed his principals that "we will only fly the 'current' flag of any country in any display of world flags." Thus, the South Vietnamese flag may be put up "only in a historical display, but never in addition to or in place of the current Vietnamese flag."
"If my bill gets through, they'll have to change that," Hull said yesterday. He said he has received more than 140 e-mails of support from Vietnamese Americans and Vietnam War veterans.
Among Hull's backers is Bao Vu, 40, a computer programmer who fled Vietnam at age 16 and now lives in Annandale with his family. Last year, he said, his 9-year-old son came home from his day-care center upset that the communist flag was on display for international day. Vu complained, and the center switched flags, he said.
But a hair salon owner who declined to be identified for fear of being labeled a communist sympathizer had a different view: "I feel this flag is just like a community flag. Some parents have to understand that the past is over."