Art Klein isn't going to let a disagreement with the Disabled American Veterans rain on his parade.
Klein, who survived nearly four years of captivity in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War II, plans to tow the DAV Chapter 10's patriotic flag wagon in Red Lodge's Fourth of July parade Tuesday. He's representing Billings-based Chapter 10 despite a recent disciplinary action by state DAV officials to change his membership to at-large status.
The flag wagon was built by Klein and other Chapter 10 members. It traces the evolution of the American flag, from Betsy Ross' original design to the modern flag featuring 50 stars on a field of blue and 13 red and white stripes. The flag wagon, which Klein tows behind his 1985 El Camino, is a regular entry in Billings-area parades.
"It's got 22 flags that we put in standards," Klein said. "We've also got loudspeakers, and we've got canned music that I play."
It will be Klein's sixth consecutive appearance in the Red Lodge parade.
"I don't care what anybody says. He's welcome here," said Glory Mahan, who directs the Red Lodge event.
During a disciplinary hearing June 1 in Lewistown, Klein's membership in the Billings-based Chapter 10 of the DAV was changed to "at large," meaning he is not allowed to actively participate in DAV meetings. Jerry LaFountain, also a member of DAV Chapter 10, received a one-year suspension.
Klein said Friday that he has yet to receive anything in writing that confirms a change in his membership status.
"I'm disregarding the order to be at large until I get something in writing at least," Klein said. "I haven't gotten anything in writing whatsoever."
LaFountain also says he hasn't received any written notice of his suspension.
Bob Carson, commander of Chapter 10, declined to comment on Klein's status, saying he hadn't yet received any paperwork. He also wouldn't speculate on whether Klein's status as an at-large member would affect his ability to represent the DAV in parades.
LaFountain's suspension came after he was accused of making disrespectful comments to DAV officials, a violation of the DAV's bylaws.
Klein said he was disciplined because he didn't immediately provide financial records for Chapter 10, as requested by state officers. Klein said there's a simple explanation for why the records weren't provided. His son, Richard Klein, had been Chapter 10's treasurer but was in the process of moving to Arizona. The records were in the younger Klein's Billings office when they were requested, but Art didn't have immediate access to them.
"Those books checked out right to the penny," he said.
In an April 12 letter, Keith E. Beach of Ekalaka, the DAV's past state commander, informed LaFountain that he was being charged with violating the DAV's bylaws for allegedly threatening Larry Vermillion, the DAV's former hospital service coordinator, during a conversation at LaFountain's shop on July 9 last year, for making allegedly rude and disrespectful comments to Beach at a meeting in November, and for another verbal confrontation with Vermillion last December.
Klein and LaFountain were temporarily suspended last fall after they were quoted in a Gazette article as criticizing the way a transportation service for veterans was being managed. In an earlier interview, Beach denied that the Lewistown disciplinary hearing had anything to do with the published comments by LaFountain and Klein.
Some members of Chapter 10 are angry with the way Klein and LaFountain have been treated.
"It's kind of ridiculous," said Ben Steele, who like Klein was a prisoner of war during World War II. "Art Klein is one of the best members we've had. He's not only put a lot of time and effort into the DAV, he's even used his own money."
Steele said he has stopped going to DAV meetings since Klein and LaFountain were disciplined.
"I don't plan to go back for a while," he said. "It's kind of disrupted Chapter 10."
Dave Peterson, another member of Chapter 10, described the Lewistown proceedings as a "kangaroo court."
Klein's wife, Louise, is also upset with how her husband has been treated.
"He personally helped build the flag wagon, and a lot of his own money and sweat went into it," she said. "We need appreciative leaders, not those who crucify good, hardworking members."