The misunderstanding started more than a year ago, when Clay Uzell, the commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 7536 in Lyndhurst, visited the newly opened Target in Mayfield and asked if veterans could sell poppies outside the store.
Every year, VFW members sell artificial poppies in areas with high foot traffic, such as outside Wal-Marts and Tops supermarkets, to raise money for disabled vets. Last year, Post 7536 raised $700, which was used to buy a popcorn machine and some microphones for a local veterans' hospital, but the event is about more than money. Veterans who came home intact feel a lifelong duty to their brothers who were less fortunate.
"That money is sacrosanct, you might say," says James McAuliff, a 73-year-old who served in Korea.
But when Uzell asked for Target's permission to sell the poppies, he was rebuffed. "When I went in and spoke to the manager, he said, 'I really can't give you permission,'" Uzell says. The manager told him to write a letter to Target headquarters, but added, "I'll tell you right now, I don't believe you meet the criteria."
Uzell didn't want to make trouble. "If they tell me no, I just don't want to be a pain in the ass," he says. He didn't bother writing to headquarters.
But his experience wasn't unique. Danny Plymesser, a Vietnam veteran who oversaw a district that included some 58 VFW posts across the Midwest, says he had similar experiences at two other local Target stores. "They just said that we did not meet their criteria," he says.
For men who risked all for their country, it felt like a slap in the face.
"You're telling me I'm a Vietnam veteran and I fought for you in the rice paddies, and now I can't help a fellow veteran?" says Plymesser. But, like Uzell, he decided not to pursue it. He suggested to other vets that they might consider taking their business elsewhere, but kept the matter in-house.
But recently, members of VFW Post 7536 saw the minutes for an August meeting of the Cuyahoga County Veterans Service Commission. The text included an e-mail sent by Veterans Service Commissioner Mel Baher that seemed to confirm the vets' worst suspicions about Target: "The Vietnam Veterans of America asked Target Stores to be a sponsor of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall during their spring recognition event. Target management responded by saying, 'Veterans do not meet our area of giving. We only donate to the areas of arts, social actions, gay and lesbian causes, and education.'"
The e-mail concluded by stating that Target "is French owned."
This was too much for the local vets to take. Target's giving money to those other groups, but stiffing veterans, seemed uncomfortably close to stories of people spitting on soldiers who came back from Vietnam. And the revelation that Target was French-owned only added salt to the wound. American soldiers liberated France during World War II. France repaid that debt by being a royal pain in the ass during the run-up to the Iraq war.
So the veterans declared war on Target. They printed fliers that included Baher's e-mail under the heading, "Are you sure you want to shop here?" and planned to circulate them in parking lots outside Target stores. And they called the press.
What the vets didn't realize was that they were helping to turn a misunderstanding into a full-blown urban legend.
The e-mail Behar had passed along was a classic example of an inaccuracy traveling faster than the speed of truth. Dick Forrey, of the Howard County Vietnam Veterans Association in Indiana, had written it after Target refused a March 2002 request for a $100 donation for a traveling Vietnam Veterans' Memorial Wall. The e-mail circulated among veterans and got posted on the internet, where it became conventional wisdom.
But Forrey either wasn't told -- or neglected to mention in his e-mail -- that Target's corporate-giving program works through a grant process and does not distribute cash donations. So Target wasn't snubbing vets. It was just another example of the same corporate red tape that Plymesser and Uzell had encountered. A locally owned store might readily accommodate a request to peddle poppies outside its doors; corporations have multiple layers of management and policies to protect them from lawsuits and claims of discrimination.
Target does forbid veterans to sell poppies outside its stores, but it also forbids any other group from soliciting. "We just received so many requests . . . We just had to institute this policy to be fair and consistent across the board," says Target Spokeswoman Aimee Sands. "We're not trying to say that any organization isn't worthy at all."
The only exception is the Salvation Army, says Sands. "We've been working with them for many years."
Complicating matters was the fact that Forrey's e-mail changed significantly as it circulated around the Internet. Some anonymous netizen added the line about Target only donating to "gay and lesbian causes," which isn't true. Someone else added the line that Target is French-owned (it's actually based in Minneapolis, Minnesota).
And ironically, Target is renowned for giving to charitable causes. Forbes magazine recently named it the most philanthropic company in America. In the Greater Cleveland area alone, Target has recently donated more than $95,000 to such worthwhile causes as the Museum of Art, the Rape Crisis Center, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, and the Cleveland Reads literacy program.
The company has been no less generous toward veterans. Not only did Target contribute to the World War II Memorial and sponsor the 2003 tour of "The Wall that Heals" -- the same exhibit for which Forrey was soliciting donations -- but it also donated to the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association in New York, the Hays County veterans in Texas, and the Disabled American Veterans Auxiliaries in Michigan and California.
Yet the bogus e-mail is in such wide circulation that Target issued a press release to counter claims that it's unpatriotic. The VFW also posted a statement on its website almost a year ago. But even among veterans, the truth hasn't spread nearly as rapidly as the scandal did.
Uzell, the commander of VFW Post 7536, says that in light of the new information, he'll call off his troops. "I would tell my guys, don't do the fliers then, if that's erroneous stuff, if it's an urban legend-type thing," he says. "I don't want to be spreading any rumors."
Besides, he says, plenty of stores don't have policies against selling poppies.
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