The American flag exists at the periphery of most our lives. It takes on significance mainly at events kicked off by the playing of the national anthem, at parades and during the seventh-inning stretch at Yankees games. At those times we pause and reflect, perhaps on the memory of a family member or friend who was lost on a foreign battlefield.
For others, however — a shrinking brotherhood of veterans of Word War II, Korea and Vietnam, as well as the men and women who have served in the gulf war, Iraq and Afghanistan — the flag is a much more powerful symbol that to some degree defines their lives. In many cases they gave up years of their youth to defend it, and because so many of their friends died in that effort, those who survived came home feeling the weighty responsibility for keeping that history — and the flag’s symbolism — alive.
In the 1960s, those who denigrated the military and its adventures overseas often mocked people in uniform and the flag they saluted, sometimes gleefully burning it and much more often cheapening it by decorating everything from T-shirts to Volkswagen Beetles to bags of marijuana with it. In the social and cultural upheaval of the times, it was hard to predict what the future of that flag might be.
But 50 years later, with men and women still dying in its defense, it flies high still. The flag made a dramatic comeback after the Sept. 11 attacks, and now proudly flutters almost everywhere, it seems, from construction trucks to homes and businesses to the lifeguard stands at Jones Beach.
Today there is even a group of volunteers who use old, tattered flags — which by law must be destroyed — to honor servicemen and women. Susan Wells, of Troy, N.Y., who started the project, called Stars For Our Troops, collects discarded and damaged American flags and removes the stars. Each one is washed and pressed, and then placed in a small bag with a note that reads, “I am part of our American flag that has flown over a home in the U.S.A. I can no longer fly. The sun and winds have caused me to become tattered and torn. Please carry me as a reminder that you are not forgotten.”
“When I had a soldier crying on my shoulder and thanking me for remembering his service,” Wells said, “I knew it was right.”
On Friday, Flag Day, take a moment to think about all those soldiers, and all that the flag means.
For more about the flag, its use and display, visit www.Legion.org/flag/code.