WADENA, Minn. — A vinyl sign outside the Wadena VFW recently drew one complaint and a lot of approval, according to club manager Cody Boyer.
The banner reads: “IF YOU CAN’T STAND FOR OUR NATIONAL ANTHEM YOU DON’T NEED TO SIT IN THIS BAR.”
As the bar serves as the site for the local Veterans of Foreign Wars, Boyer felt this was the right place to share this message. It’s a response to those who decide to kneel during the national anthem, a movement that has created plenty of controversy in recent years.
Boyer said the one complaint he received was from a woman he hadn't spoken with as of Tuesday, Feb. 25. She found the sign to be racist, Boyer said. He said in addition to a complaint at the bar on Saturday, Feb. 22, the woman reached out to Grain Belt Beer, the company which serves as the distributor of the sign. Grain Belt Beer is made by August Schell Brewing.
August Schell Vice President of Operations Kyle Marti said the company didn’t approve the banner as it read, insisting that the word “can’t” could be interpreted as unfairly discriminating against those physically unable to stand.
“The opportunity for misinterpretation is too high, especially in today’s political climate,” Marti said.
Marti explained that beer distributors make these kinds of signs with their logos. He said he spoke at length with Boyer about where the company stands on the particular language concerns in this message.
“We do not have oversight of many to most of these signs that go out,” Marti said.
“This is not the first time it’s come into circulation,” Marti said of this particular message. “The sign’s verbiage proves to be divisive.”
Marti is not insinuating that the company is in anyway unpatriotic. He said the company stands firmly by veterans. Marti and his family are close to the issue as they have a long-standing tradition of military service. Marti is still serving and has so for the last 16 years.
Boyer insisted the banner would stay up.
“I will cover up their logo though,” Boyer said. “There is no intention of tearing the sign down. Matter of fact, I would like to get a bigger one.”
Boyer likened the sign controversy to that surrounding the Nativity scene placed on city property, which was later moved to private property. That controversial subject brought national media attention on Wadena in 2015. He feels he has the right to share the message and he is not telling anyone they can’t be served at the VFW, which is home to the Elmer Goche VFW Post 3922. He feels passionate about veterans and the flag that they defend.
“I’m not discriminating against anyone,” Boyer said.
Aside from the one complaint, Boyer said comments have been positive.
“If anything, I have gained customers because of it,” Boyer said. He’s had requests from customers to sign the banner. Even Grain Belt Beer sales were up at the Wadena bar, he said.
The bar was crowded Tuesday with patrons including Leo Kempf, who serves on the Honor Guard of the local post.
"There's no reason they should be against it," Kempf, a Vietnam veteran, said of those who won't stand for the national anthem.
Another patron, Doug Bjerke, didn't mince words.
"If they don't like it, I'd tell them 'get out,' " said Bjerke, a Wadena resident and member of the VFW club. "If it wasn't for veterans we wouldn't have this country ... It's a VFW, it's not a girls volleyball club."
Elmer Goche VFW Post 3922 Commander Phil Thoennes said he's heard nothing but positive things about the banner. He believes it should have one word change — instead of "can't," he said it should read "won't," as in "if you won't stand." He recognizes that some people are physically unable to stand. Other than that, the Vietnam War veteran said, "I like it."
"We really believe everyone who lives in this country should respect our flag and stand for our national anthem," he said.
The identity of the woman who complained about the banner was unknown and there was no contact information available for her from the club.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was updated to include the comments of August Schell Brewing.