"I decided to go up there and see if they're doing anything about it, and if not, I'm simply going just to walk in and pick up the flag and walk away," Manhart told Air Force Times on Monday. "I didn't want to cause any ruckus. My intentions were just to kind of go in quietly and not disrupt whatever they were doing."
What happened next thrust Manhart back in the media spotlight eight years after her career in the Air Force ended abruptly when she posed nude for Playboy. A video posted on YouTube shows former Staff Sgt. Michelle Manhart being handcuffed at Valdosta State University, Georgia, after refusing to give the flag back to protesters.
Manhart told Air Force Times that she had been alerted by a student at the university, whose father she served with in the Air Force, that the demonstrators were walking on the flag. She alerted the university, but the protests continued.
When she arrived on campus, she saw the demonstrators were debating among themselves, so she picked up the flag and headed to the parking lot, she said. About 10 feet from the parking lot, the protesters and police caught up with Manhart, whose daughter started videotaping the confrontation.
The campus police told her to give the flag back, she said.
"They said, 'If you release it to us, we will not give it back to them,'" Manhart said. "I disagreed with that wholeheartedly. There were other people's hands on it as well that belonged with the organization, so, of course I wasn't going to let go, because if I did, it would have been in their hands again."
Manhart felt the need to take the flag from the demonstrators because she was outraged at how they were treating what she sees as an iconic symbol of freedom.
"We drape that flag over many coffins over the men and women that unfortunately don't get to come home the way they left; over our firefighters, our police officers, a lot of our civil servants," Manhart said. "If you're walking on that flag, then you're also walking on their caskets and you're walking on everything they stood for and you have no respect for the freedom that they have fought to make sure that you can have."
As part of a campaign for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals years ago, Manhart posed nude while draped in the American flag. She said that the picture was meant as a sign of respect for the flag.
"What we wanted to try to get out of it is: People in general, we are very big on materialistic items," she said. "Even if you're not big into money, we all want cars and clothes and rings and iPads – it's something that we just naturally want.
"When you take away all materialistic things, what's left? It' just us. It's just us standing there in the nude. I would venture to say that most of us, myself included, would not be comfortable just walking down the street completely in the nude. But if you remove all materialistic items, what do you still have? You have your freedom. And if you stand behind your freedom; if you stand behind the flag and what it stands for and everything that it is, then you will always have your freedom."
Michelle Manhart marches in her military training instructor uniform at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, on Nov. 18, 2005.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Michelle Manhart
Manhart's 13-year career in the Air Force was destroyed when she posed in uniform and nude for the February 2007 issue of Playboy.
She was roundly criticized by service members, who claimed she had disgraced her uniform, and former talk show host Montel Williams, a Navy veteran, said he would have personally separated Manhart if she were under his command.
"I don't want you to step in before a formation of 350 young troops that I know just saw you in the PX with your clothes off," Williams told Manhart in a 2007 episode.
In a 2007 interview with Air Force Times, Manhart said she had wanted to pose for Playboy since she was a young girl.
"At the time, I didn't see it as Playboy," Manhart said. "I just thought, 'Wow, this is the best magazine for models.'"
She joined the Air Force when she was just 16 years old, so her mother had to sign a release form. Her father, step-father and grandfather served in the military. In early 2006, she answered a casting call from Playboy and was photographed that April.
Manhart did not tell chain of command that she had posed for Playboy until a month before the magazine hit stands.
"At first, they said, 'Don't worry. You're not in trouble, and you're in our best interest,'" she said. "We just need to notify the correct people."
But within a matter of hours, they told her "to pack my desk and turn in my hat," she said.She was removed from active duty status and she finished her contract. In 2007, Air Force Times reported that Manhart was demoted to senior airman, but the Air Force confirmed on Monday that she separated as a staff sergeant.
Looking back at her Air Force career, Manhart misses aspects of military life.
"I don't miss the negativity," she said. "I miss the family. I miss the uniform. "I don't really miss getting up every day and going to work. But I miss the whole picture. Almost 13 years of my life is there."