Flag used to cover Saddam statue kept in safe-deposit box

Retired Lt. Tim McLaughlin of the Marine Corps says he keeps the flag in a safe-deposit box because he doesn't want it to attract undue attention.

U.S. MARINE COVERS FACE OF SADDAM HUSSEIN STATUE WITH AMERICAN FLAG IN BAGHDADA U.S. Marine covers the face of a statue of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein with a U.S. flag in Baghdad April 9, 2003. U.S. troops briefly draped an American flag over the face of a giant statue of President Saddam Hussein in central Baghdad on Wednesday as they prepared to topple it in front of a crowd of Iraqis. Local residents had earlier scaled the 20-foot -six metre- statue and slipped a noose around its neck to drag it down. REUTERS-Goran ...

The iconic moment when Saddam Hussein's statue came toppling down in front of cheering spectators in Baghdad 10 years ago has been forever etched as one of the pivotal moments of the invasion of Iraq.

Coupled with it was another image — the one of U.S. Marines briefly covering the face of the 20-foot statue with an American flag right before it was toppled and dragged around Firdos Square with a noose around its neck.

Salon reported today that the flag is still with its owner — retired Lt. Tim McLaughlin, who lent his commander the flag April 9, 2003, for a few minutes, turning it into a piece of history.

McLaughlin told MSN News that he kept the flag in a safe-deposit box near his parents' New Hampshire home because he didn't want it to "become a focus of attention" once again.

HISTORY BEHIND McLAUGHLIN'S FLAG

"I understand that this flag has a lot of symbolism for the U.S. — for me it's just an American flag," McLaughlin said. "It was given to me by someone right after 9/11 and I kept it, probably because it saved me $1.95 cents to go out and buy that flag."

McLaughlin, who witnessed American Airlines Flight 77 hitting the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, helped rescue personnel inside the building's courtyard in the attack's aftermath. The flag was a thank-you gesture from a friend.

"Eighteen months later, when I was deployed with my tank battalion to Kuwait, I took all my stuff, and I threw the flag in a duffel bag," he said. "The only premeditation was that someday I would be an old man and would have some photographs from Iraq to show my grandkids."

When McLaughlin tried to photograph the flag with an old disposable camera somewhere in central Iraq, he almost got shot.

"When our tank got to Firdos Square on April 9, we weren't getting shot at," McLaughlin said. "We had some downtime, and my company commander said, 'Get your flag out and get a picture of it.' I knew the media was there, but I didn't know it was being filmed. I handed it to my company commander, and somehow it made its way up to Cpl. Edward Chin."

Draping Saddam's face with the U.S. flag was perceived as a minor PR fiasco by some. A few seconds later the flag was removed and was replaced by an Iraqi flag.

'FLAG IS MORE THAN A SYMBOL TO ME'

For McLaughlin, who now runs a pro bono organization for homeless veterans in Boston, the flag stands for what happened "before and after" Iraq.

"I remember shooting too quickly and shooting civilians. I remember my friends getting killed. I remember Cpl. Gonzales and Cpl. Envin getting killed — those personal things didn't show up on TV for those 15 seconds of the flag," he said. "I appreciate that the flag has a lot of symbolism, but it doesn’t represent what went on the ground combat level."

McLaughlin realized that the picture of his flag had gone viral — showing up on cable news channels and newspapers around the world — much later.

"I didn't have a cellphone or Internet — the first time I recognized that the image was consumed by the world's population was in July when I got back on the ship," he said.

McLaughlin said he had been in touch with someone at the Marine Corps Museum almost five to seven years ago about possibly finding a permanent home for the flag, but then he moved to Bosnia and it was all forgotten.

"I get frustrated that a lot of people see it as an easy symbol for what went on during the war," he said.

In his article "The Toppling," Peter Maass — who reported on the diaries McLaughlin kept in Iraq — wrote how the frenzied American media coverage of the Firdos Square toppling depicted almost a victorylike atmosphere, helping to shape public opinion in the United States.

In reality, "Firdos Square wasn't the end of a short war, it was the beginning of a long one," Maass said.

"In one sense it's real, it happened, but in another sense, it was reported in a way to fit a narrative," McLaughlin said.

——

MSN News on Facebook and Twitter

Stay up to date on breaking news and current events.

Friend us on Facebook: www.facebook.com/news.msn

Follow us on Twitter: www.twitter.com/msnnews