The twelve thousand American flags that will decorate the National Mall beginning Friday, Nov. 30, through Sunday, Dec. 2, represent the many military service members discharged from the U.S. armed forces over the past 14 years, since ''Don't Ask, Don't Tell'' was signed into law by former President Bill Clinton, prohibiting gays and lesbians from serving openly.
''It's time to put a visual example on the Mall so that everyone can see what has been lost, and how much we're losing to the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy,'' says Antonio Agnone, a gay 27-year-old Marine Corps veteran from Columbus, Ohio. He now works as a public policy advocate for the Human Rights Campaign and lives on Capitol Hill.
''It's also an attempt to bring all the groups that work on 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' together and also have a little bit of fun.''
The groups joining forces with HRC are Servicemembers United, founded by Alexander Nicholson, who came up with the idea to display flags on the Mall; Log Cabin Republicans; Liberty Education Forum and Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN). The ''fun'' portion includes an ''Army-Navy Game Football Party'' at Nellie's Sports Bar, at noon, on Saturday, Dec. 1.
''It's always nice that when you're working together and doing something serious, that you also have time to go out and socialize,'' says Agnone. ''We've tried to create a nice mix of that.''
It was not so long ago that Agnone was working in Iraq as a combat engineer, dealing with explosives on a daily basis, finding and dismantling roadside bombs.
''Those were responsible for [killing] about 80 percent of U.S. service personnel,'' Agnone says, adding that he was recognized with a Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, for ''saving the most American lives,'' by dismantling nine bombs in two months.
''Every one of those would take out...a seven and a half ton truck that holds 40 people. They can do a lot of damage. That said, anyone who doubts the value of gays and lesbians and bisexuals serving in Iraq right now needs to really think about the contributions that we're actually making,'' urges Agnone. ''If [I]...saved even one person's life, I doubt very seriously their family would argue against my presence in Iraq.''
It was during his time as an engineer and explosives officer that Agnone came to a life-changing realization.
''Every time I would do something really dangerous, thoughts would occur to me that the military basically wouldn't let [my partner] know if anything were to happen to me,'' he says. ''They wouldn't pay him that courtesy, none of the life insurances would kick in, he wouldn't be offered counseling services, and the inverses were also true: If he got in a car accident back here, the military would never let me know. There would be no way I could request bereavement leave...like a straight person.
''I really wanted to stay in the military. But because of all that, I decided to put everything down and walk away.''
Since leaving the military in April, Agnone has been working for the Human Rights Campaign and advocating to repeal ''Don't Ask, Don't Tell'' with efforts like ''12,000 Flags for 12,000 Patriots.''
''What I am attempting to do with this event, and with everything that I've done, is make [everyone] realize what an effect discrimination has on their lives.''
Martin Chin, 40, of Logan Circle, experienced that discrimination firsthand, he says, while serving the Air Force in Japan two years ago.
Chin, a psychiatrist and flight surgeon, claims things turned ugly once his commander let him know that she was aware of his sexual orientation.
''It wasn't really explicit because they're not allowed to out you,'' he says. ''So she sat me down and said, 'There is something about your personal life that I find very upsetting. I'm ordering you not to tell me anything and I'm not asking you anything.' It was kind of clear what she was talking about.''
Chin claims he was taken off ''special projects,'' and instead assigned to routine tasks. It was also during a time when people from Chin's unit were being deployed. Accordingly, their absences left Chin with more responsibilities.
''It seemed unfair that I was being asked to do basically four jobs, at the same time that they're telling me that I'm a liar and an embarrassment to Air Force and therefore I can't be on these high-profile cases.
''I felt like...I couldn't really be as effective as I needed to be,'' he continues. ''It impacted my ability to work. It impacted my ability to take care of patients, and it made me see that I didn't really have a future with the company.''
Much like Agnone, Chin found a future advocating against ''Don't Ask, Don't Tell,'' at SLDN in his case, where he has been volunteering since leaving the military in 2005.
''A lot of people don't realize that people are still affected by the ban on gays in the military,'' says Chin. ''It's a foolish policy. It hurts the military, it hurts individuals -- it hurts everyone. People who have things to contribute can't do so in a way that is palatable. If you want to completely suppress any kind of personal happiness to serve in the military, that's okay for awhile, but I don't think that people can do that on a long-term basis.''
''12,000 Flags for 12,000 Patriots'' kicks off on Friday, Nov. 30, at 10 a.m., at the corner of 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW. A community reception is scheduled to follow at 6 p.m. at Bar Helix, 1430 Rhode Island Ave. NW.
On Saturday, Dec. 1, a Town Hall event is scheduled from 9 a.m. to noon at HRC's Equality Forum, 1640 Rhode Island Ave. NW, to be followed by the Army-Navy Game Football Party at noon at Nellie's Sports Bar, 900 U St. NW.
A Military Chaplains' Prayer Service closes the three-day-event Sunday, Dec. 2, at 11 a.m. on the National Mall, at the corner of 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW.