Why are American flags attached to Route 1 overpasses?
Eli Valenzuela has a commitment to his country and appreciation for its men and women in uniform.
Ever since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Valenzuela has made sure an American flag is attached to several bridges spanning Delaware Route 1. Any overpass, from Dover Air Force Base down past Milford that has safety fencing has two flags attached.
One flag faces northbound traffic, the other faces south.
“I knew I had to do something,” Valenzuela said of his reaction to the 9/11 attacks. “For me, that was to show my love for my country and my flag, and to stand behind our military.”
A native of Corpus Christi, Texas, he served six years active duty in the U.S. Army and three years in the National Guard. He and his wife, Sher, own Milford’s First State Manufacturing, an industrial sewing company they founded in 1997.
‘We permit them’
The events of 9/11 shook Valenzuela to the core.
“We were working that morning and Sher ran in and said we had to turn on the TV,” he said. “We saw the World Trade Center had been hit. Then the second tower was hit. I got everyone from the shop and we sat around, looking at it. All I could think about was, we’re going to war.”
Valenzuela shut down the company that day and all of First State’s employees went to watch the disaster unfolding in New York and Washington.
“For me, I knew I had to do something,” he said. “At that moment, I thought there was no better way to support my country and its armed forces than by putting a flag on the overpass at Dover Air Force Base. I called DelDOT and talked with them, asking if there was a problem.”
Charles “CR” McLeod, DelDOT’s director of community relations, confirmed the division’s stance on attaching flags to the overpass.
“There are a few groups that put them up, and we permit them as long as they don’t interfere with traffic,” he said.
“If they become tattered or unattached, we will remove them, otherwise we are fine with them being there.”
The overpass is now named in honor of Senior Airman Elizabeth Loncki, first woman from Delaware killed in Iraq.
‘As I still have breath in me’
Valenzuela installed the first flag Sept. 12, 2001. Since then he’s put up the banners on four other bridges spanning Route 1, and has plans for the new Route 14 overpass near Milford.
“I’ve already got two flags ready for that one,” he said.
Well versed in flag etiquette, Valenzuela ensures his flags are replaced whenever they become tattered or faded.
Each American-made banner costs about $45. A First State Manufacturing employee reinforces the edges of each with heavy duty binding and metal grommets, allowing the flag to be securely attached to the overpass fencing with industrial-strength zip ties.
And while he keeps an eye out to replace worn flags, Valenzuela also has been forced to replace stolen banners. He finds it hard to understand why someone would steal an American flag or why some people have made obscene gestures toward him when putting up a new flag.
“It’s amazing to me how some people will do that, throw me the bird when I’m trying to do something that’s good and positive,” he said.
In some ways, Valenzuela sees himself as fighting a decline in patriotism since the initial surge of nationalistic feelings immediately after 9/11. Fewer people are displaying the flag today, and he says he has noted a lack of tolerance for traditional religious beliefs and respect for law enforcement.
“It’s the way the country has gone, but yet they forget about all these innocent people who were at work at the Twin Towers and the Pentagon and on that airplane that crashed in Pennsylvania who were killed for nothing,” he said.
On the other hand, he’s seen how people have put up flags on other overpasses and bridges along Route 1, and how someone once replaced one of his when it was too worn.
“People who are patriotic today are hard-core patriotic,” he said.
As for himself, Valenzuela said he has no plans to stop showing his own national pride, manifested in flag displays along Delaware’s main roadway.
“I’m going to do this as long as I still have breath in me,” he said.