David Fields, a 69-year-old U.S. Navy Vietnam veteran, stared at the American flag flying near the opening of an otherwise empty area of desert in Henderson.
As the wind picked up early Tuesday afternoon, so did the sounds of the flag flapping, snaps and pops in staccato bursts. The flagpole atop a mound of brown dirt bent very little, if at all. Surrounding it were broken pieces of cement, each painted red, white and blue.
“The guy who put that flag up did it solidly,” said Fields, who contacted the Review-Journal about the flag. “It’s nice to see someone putting up a flag instead of desecrating it. You can’t help but wonder about who the patriot is who did it.”
At the bottom of the flagpole were yellow cards — information about how homeless military veterans could get help.
As Fields talked, a car slowed at the corner of Dondero Drive and Harris Street. It stopped by a guard rail painted red, white and blue, with an arrow pointing to the nearby flag. “This reminds me of the flag flying at Iwo Jima,” yelled the driver, who walked over to the flag. He introduced himself as Joe Siriani, a 72-year-old Vietnam-era U.S. Marine.
“I wonder who did this,” Siriani said as 17-year-old Juan Cuellar walked up and shared what he knew.
“I think I saw him sleeping here this morning, under that blanket,” Cuellar said. “I never saw his face, but I bet it was him. It’s cool what he’s done.”
The man who put up the flag a week ago appeared Tuesday night. Lucas Patrick Payton said he was homeless and pointed to where he slept: in a hammock between two trees. In the glow afforded by the battery-powered lights he placed around the flag, he seemed younger than his 35 years. He laughed frequently.
“I want to bring attention to homeless veterans,” he said. “They deserve better.”
Payton said he didn’t do as well as he would have liked in the Army, but he added that what he learned has helped him be a better person. “Sometimes I got in trouble because of my sense of humor. Once I ran around with my gas mask on like a Tasmanian Devil. Another time I didn’t come back from leave on time.”
Payton’s military records reveal he entered the Army in Albany, New York, in 2002 and was forced out 18 months later in 2004 for “misconduct.” Given a general discharge, the man trained as a mechanic is eligible for few benefits. “I’m not mad at the Army,” he said. “I made my own problems.”
After leaving the Army, Payton said he came to Las Vegas to visit a friend. For awhile he installed satellite TV and had his own apartment. But he said a car he was a passenger in was hit by a drunken driver, and as a result he couldn’t work while recovering. A friend took him to California, and he started living on Venice Beach. He put up a flag on the beach, a story that made its way to YouTube.
“People liked I was helping vets,” he said. “People gave me money to live on just like they do now. I don’t panhandle.”
He said he seldom has problems with the law, but Payton admits returning to Las Vegas after spending 120 days in jail in California. Records show a conviction on drug charges — methamphetamine.
“I made a mistake,” he said.
Las Vegas Justice Court records show a Lucas Patrick Payton dealt with string of misdemeanors from 2006 to 2013, with charges ranging from domestic violence to trespassing.
As I talked with Payton late Tuesday night by the flag, Henderson police drove up. Three officers. We were told to drop everything and put our hands in the air. Their spotlight was blinding. We put our hands on the hood of one police car as they checked our identification to see if we had any outstanding criminal warrants.
I told them I was doing a story on the flag.
“I think what’s being done with the flag here is great,” an officer said.
As the officers drove off, Payton couldn’t have been happier.
“The police said they like my flag,” he said. “Isn’t that great?”