Navy veteran created a program that lets Comcast workers replace homeowners' tattered U.S. flags — for free
By MARC NARDUCCI | The Philadelphia Inquirer | Published: December 17, 2020
PHILADELPHIA (Tribune News Service) — David Pinder was replacing a worn-out American flag outside his Comcast office in April 2017 when he thought of a new way to honor Old Glory.
Pinder, an eight-year retired Navy veteran, had been working at Comcast since 2005. He's a network maintenance supervisor, overseeing the team that keeps the outside network and pole lines working.
Being on the road so frequently, Pinder, 46, had seen many American flags in need of replacement.
"It's something that I think a lot of people notice, especially if you served or are just passionate about the flag," said Pinder, a Bear, Del., native who now lives in North Wilmington.
As he replaced his own flag that day, he thought of those tattered and worn ones scattered across the community. "I thought, 'Man, it would be really nice if we could do this for everybody,'" he said.
So Pinder came up with an idea. If Comcast would supply the flags, he'd distribute them to homes whose outdoor flags needed replacement. He submitted his proposal to the company via an employee resource group called the Veterans Network (Vet Net for short), which helps military vets transition from active duty to civilian life while putting the skills they gained in the military to use as Comcast employees.
"Within two days, I had 75 flags sitting in my office, and it was kind of time to put up or shut up," Pinder said.
Thus was born the Vet Net Flag Replacement Program, whose strategy would be simple. Pinder, while out on the road, would knock on the door of any home that was flying a tattered flag and volunteer to replace it at no cost and to retire the old flag in accordance with the U.S. Flag Code.
To date, about 400 flags have been replaced, not just by Pinder but by some of the 15 Comcast employees who have since become his fellow "ambassadors" in the program. The service is offered regardless of whether or not a flag owner is a Comcast customer.
"We've had tremendous feedback" from the public, said Dale Elifrits, Comcast vice president of plants and construction, who is the executive sponsor of Comcast's Veterans Network. Recipients often go from an initial, suspicious response of "What do you want from me?" to an appreciation that Comcast workers just saw a need to "make a difference."
"It's pretty neat to be a part of," said Elifrits.
Janet Stutzman was one of the program's first recipients. She was approached three years ago at her New Castle home by flag ambassador Jeff Tontarski, a Comcast network maintenance technician.
"I was a little apprehensive, wondering where this was going," Stutzman recalled. "He started explaining his program and said he would like to replace my flag — if it would be OK. He said he had a flag in his truck, and I didn't have to be a Comcast customer."
It was an offer she couldn't refuse, said Stutzman, whose late husband, Charles, was a Navy veteran.
"I said, 'That would be nice. This is a nice thing you are doing,'" she said.
Recently, the flag — now worn — was replaced. This time, Pinder did the honor.
"It's so heartwarming that people would do something like this," she said.
In the beginning, the program was limited to New Castle County. Since then, it has expanded into Delaware and Montgomery counties in Pennsylvania, Camden County in New Jersey, and the town of Port Murray in Warren County, N.J.
Comcast workers can use an app to report the location of a tattered flag to Pinder, who can then send an ambassador to replace it.
Pinder purchases the flags, which cost $18 to $30, almost exclusively through the Amazon Smile 501(c)3, which donates a portion of the purchase to the buyer's designated charity. Pinder's designated recipient is the Wounded Warrior Project, which supports veterans who incurred a physical or mental injury, illness, or wound while serving in the military on or after Sept. 11, 2001.
"So we try to kind of bring [the flag program] full circle," said Pinder.
The COVID-19 pandemic hasn't slowed the flag operation, he said. When ambassadors knock on doors, they're wearing masks and gloves, and then "We step back 10 feet or more."
Ambassadors had anticipated that homeowners would be wary of interacting with them during the pandemic, he added. But what "we found was the opposite of what we anticipated. Many people who were shut-ins [due to the pandemic] not only were happy to see us, but really wanted to talk — and keep talking."
As the program heads into its fourth year, Pinder's dreams for it are growing.
"It can be done nationwide," he said, "and that's something we were actually ramping up before COVID hit," he said. "My goal is to grow it across the rest of the region, and then eventually the country."
If anyone can make it happen, said Comcast's Elifrits, it's Pinder, who brings his natural passion to the program.
"He is very, very engaged in whatever he does," said Elifrits, "and he's a lot of fun. He's got that energy that you can't help but feel when you're around him, no matter what you do."
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