BRATTLEBORO -- Did someone steal a flag from the Kyle Gilbert Memorial Bridge and turn it into a Molotov cocktail?
That is a possibility the Brattleboro Police Department is investigating.
"At about 7:30 this morning (Aug. 20) we got a call for a vandalism or stolen flag," said Brattleboro Police Sgt. Mark Carignan, who is handling the investigation.
Officer Ryan Washburn was dispatched to the scene of the complaint, in front of the Brattleboro Food Co-op where Main Street crosses the Whetstone Brook, to find someone had busted a lock off a panel housing the flagpole's pulley mechanism.
"Someone took a brick and smashed open the door, lowered the flag down and stole it," said Carignan.
And then at about 10 a.m. that same morning, police dispatch received a call from a Brattleboro Department of Public Works employee who found a burned flag under the Interstate 91 bridge over Williams Street.
"We don't know 100 percent for sure that it's the same flag," said Carignan, but if it isn't, he said, it's a heck of coincidence that a flag was stolen at one point in town and burned in another, all on the same day.
Evidence at Williams Street included a significant char mark in the road and a large amount of glass, perhaps a 40-ounce beer bottle, said Carignan. And in addition to the burned remnants of the flag, a wick was found, he said.
"We can't say conclusively, but it looks like somebody made a Molotov cocktail and threw the flag on the fire after tossing it, or stuffed the flag in the bottle before setting it on fire," said Carignan.
Rosemary Haselton, the events coordinator for the VFW, was driving past the flagpole the morning of the theft when she saw Gilbert's mother, Regina Meckle, on the bridge.
"It's sad," she said. "I sat with her for a while. She was quite upset."
"I am so disgusted and upset," said Meckle. "He was just a kid doing his job."
Meckle has been in contact with Robert Gilbert since the theft was discovered and said they both are having a hard time understanding the perpetrator's motivation.
"It's so disheartening. I can't stop shaking. I just want to meet the person and ask them why. I won't judge them, but give me a reason why."
Gilbert, who was 20 when he was killed by a sniper's bullet on Aug. 6, 2003, was one of two Windham County residents who was killed in Iraq. The other was Mark Dooley, a member of the Wilmington Police Department, who was 27 when he was killed by an IED while riding in an armored vehicle on Sept. 19, 2005.
On Aug. 10, Gilbert's life was remembered at the VFW by hundreds of people at a ceremony commemorating the 10 years since his death.
Twice before, the monument in honor of Kyle Gilbert was defaced, but Haselton said the flag theft seemed downright mean, especially in light of the recent remembrance. The flagpole and the flag itself was originally paid for by the VFW and later given to the town.
"When you work with veterans and know what they went through for this country and for our freedom and then you see something like this, well, it's devastating. If whoever did this could sit down with some of these guys and hear their stories, perhaps they would have a different outlook."
Interim Town Manager Patrick Moreland sad he was saddened by the news.
"It's deeply disappointing and disrespectful that an American flag was defaced through an act of vandalism," he said.
"I think that's terrible," said Pat DeAngelo, who was a member of the Selectboard when the dedication of the bridge and the acceptance of the flagpole came before the town. "What the hell is wrong with people? Kyle's family has suffered enough."
The dedication of the bridge and the wording of the memorial caused a flap in town, but eventually the wording was agreed upon and the board voted unanimously to commemorate the bridge in Gilbert's honor. An appeal went out to fund the memorial, eventually raising $10,000 in donations from the community and around the country.
On Veterans Day 2004, the bridge was dedicated. The memorial reads "Brattleboro remembers all the brave men and women who served our country or made the supreme sacrifice in Iraq."
Above those words is the inscription "As Kyle said, ‘Just don't forget me.'"
Robert Gilbert said he hoped the flag that was burned was not the flag that was stolen from the bridge.
"But it seems too coincidental," he said, adding "It's hard to fathom why anyone would do something like that. To me, it's not just the American flag, but it's also my son's."
Gilbert, who said he was still in a state of disbelief over the theft of the flag, said he had no message for the perpetrator that could be printed in a daily newspaper.
He hopes that because of the visible location of the memorial, someone caught a sight of the whoever stole the flag.
Carignan said he was personally offended by the action.
"People are generally entitled to free speech and can do whatever they want, but infringing on other people's rights or destroying other people's property crosses the line."
Carignan said if a perpetrator is ever apprehended, he or she could be charged with vandalism, larceny, unlawful mischief, arson and even manufacturing an explosive device.
"This is an ongoing investigation," said Carignan. "We are in the process of looking at cameras in the area on buildings downtown to see if any of them cover that area."
Anyone who might have information related to the theft or the burning of the flag is urged to call the Brattleboro Police Department at 802-257-7946.
Bob Audette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.