Copper thieves targeted the Atwater Veterans of Foreign Wars post this week, causing thousands in damages, the second of at least two vandalism incidents affecting Merced County military-service groups less than a week after Veterans Day.
Earlier this week, a U.S. flag that was placed at a Colorado Park memorial in Los Banos for Veterans Day was tagged with black markings, according to VFW and American Legion leaders in Los Banos.
The two incidents have drawn stinging criticism from local veterans leaders.
"It just pisses us off," said Gary Brice of the Atwater VFW. Brice also said that veterans are left feeling disrespected even if they weren't targeted for their veteran status.
Atwater VFW officials reported problems with their air-conditioning system Wednesday, Atwater VFW Quartermaster Jonathan Mudgett said. But they didn't find out about the theft until members saw a copper part of a unit in the alleyway next to the VFW hall Saturday morning.
One of the members took a ladder to the top of the building where the air conditioning units are placed.
Two of the five air-conditioning units at the hall were broken into and all the copper components were stripped out. Damage estimates were placed at around $10,000, officials said.
"My first reaction, I was surprised and shocked that someone would do that," Mudgett said. "Of course, there was anger too."
In Los Banos, veterans of VFW Post 2487 and American Legion Post 166 were "angry" and "disappointed" with the defacement of the U.S. flag.
About 570 flags are placed around the city by the VFW and American Legion about eight times a year during different holidays. On Veterans Day, the flag at Colorado Park was placed at about 6 a.m. and picked up later in the day.
"That's when we saw it," said Alan Cotta, commander of the Los Banos American Legion.
Cotta said many veterans were upset. But leaders are trying to turn the disrespectful act into a teaching moment.
"On Friday, we conducted a flag etiquette class at Los Banos Junior High," Cotta said. "We showed (the defaced flag) and used it as a teaching tool."
Los Banos VFW Cmdr. Michael Hughes said the graffiti made many veterans angry.
"When you're going to start defacing the flag, what's next," Hughes said. "The majority of us fought to keep the country safe, so the flag means so much to us."
Cotta said the fate of the defaced flag is still up in the air. It may be kept as a learning tool for children and the community. Or, it could be retired in a ceremony conducted with local Boy Scouts.
Both Atwater and Los Banos officials have filed reports with their respective police departments, which are investigating the crimes.
"We're not going to sit idly as this happens," Cotta said.