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Navy vet behind flag baby photo says she'd do it again

A Navy veteran turned professional photographer said she is proud of a controversial photo in which a newborn is cradled in a flag held by his active-duty father, and would take the photo again if asked.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that this would happen from a simple family photo shoot," Vanessa Hicks told Navy Times in a March 12 phone interview. "But I would be proud to take another photo like that."

Hicks, 29, initially took a lot of heat online after posting for her photo of 8-day old Landon Clevenger, held up in the American flag by his Navy father, a photo that within days was featured on Fox News and ABC's Good Morning America.

Though this particular concept is not new, a Facebook community business page titled "You Call Yourself A Photographer?" accompanied a post of the image with pointed criticism regarding its use of the flag.

PFC Isaac Lee Deleon
PFC Isaac Lee Deleon

"The flag is not a prop. I repeat: The flag is not a prop," the group posted. "To use the American flag in such a way is disrespectful, rude, tacky, disgusting, and against the U.S. Flag Code." The group also took a shot at Clevenger's active-duty dad. saying "you have disgraced our fallen soldiers as well by disobeying that code."

But many more rallied to the sailor and photographer's defense.

The sailor pictured, Master at Arms 2nd Class Rodney Clevenger, of Ohio, was contacted by Navy Times, but sent word through the public affairs office where he is assigned, Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story, Virginia, public affairs office that he did not wish to comment. Clevenger, who joined the Navy in July 2009, posted the shot as his Facebook profile picture on March 11.

The U.S. Flag Code dictates that "[n]o disrespect should be shown to the flag of the United States of America." Among the specific examples offered, the flag should never:

  • Touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water or merchandise.
  • Be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery.
  • Be fastened, displayed, used, or stored in such a manner as to permit it to be easily torn, soiled, or damaged in any way.
  • Be used as a receptacle for receiving, holding, carrying, or delivering anything.

However, Criticism of the photo was soon met consumed by messages of support. Many called the photo everything from "beautiful" and "patriotic," and described the baby as "wrapped in freedom." Others pointed out holes in the application of Flag Code, which also forbids the flag be printed on paper napkins, boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discarded — items that are very common on national holidays and military events. The code also forbids the flag to be used on advertisements or athletic uniforms.

"I took a stand by not taking the picture down as this group wanted me to do because I did not feel I was disrespecting our flag in any way," Hicks said. "Service members, veterans and their families saw the photo, saw the intent behind, and respect it. They have shown overwhelming support. And I think the group that first threatened me now realize they messed with the wrong group."

The story in seven hours garnered nearly 1,900 likes and 800 comments on Navy Times' Facebook page. The overwhelming majority were supportive. Hicks said she had received more than 1,100 similar Facebook messages, phone calls and emails within 48 hours of the photo going viral. She has since been inundated with interview requests from national and international news agencies. And business is picking up: Some in the Virginia Beach, Virginia, area have booked the photographer as a show of support. When anyone does so, Hicks said she will donate 15 percent of the proceeds to the USO.

The post on the business page "You Call Yourself A Photographer?" had garnered 280 likes and 732 comments, most of which blasted the page.

The photographer is a veteran and married to a sailor. She joined the Navy in 2003 at the age of 17, and served as a quartermaster aboard the carrier Enterprise during its support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

"Some of the best times of my life were on that ship," she said. "I grew up on that ship. I am the person I am today because of my shipmates and mentors."

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