GREENFIELD — When an American flag becomes too weathered and worn, when the time has come for it to be taken out of service, only those who have fought beneath its colors are entrusted with its disposal.
It’s a duty former soldiers, sailors and airmen complete with utmost honor: gathering, examining and then properly disposing of flags that no longer illustrate the strength of the country they represent.
Hancock County veterans gathered Saturday in honor of Flag Day to complete a time-honored ritual to bring nearly 1,000 local flags out of service, piling them high and honorably burning them until the red, white and blue fabric became a black cloud of smoke against a bright blue sky.
Roughly 50 veterans and community members turned out for the ceremony, conducted at the 40/8 grounds in rural Greenfield.
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The disposal ceremony can be a sentimental experience for many veterans, said Bob Workman, commander of the local honor guard. The flag is often a reminder of war and fellow soldiers who have fallen, he said. Even in the most tattered state, the flag can stir memories and emotions.
“When we saw the American flag while we were overseas, it made you think of home,” Workman said. “The flag means a lot to vets, and it can bring up different things.”
Flag disposal ceremonies are performed jointly by members of the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and the 40/8 organizations. The process is outlined by a congressional resolution that was passed in 1937. It requires a leader from each organization to inspect each flag’s condition to determine if it can no longer be flown, said Butch Miller, a veteran who organizes the annual disposal ceremony.
Once flags have been deemed unserviceable, they are burned until there are no red, white or blue materials are left, he said. This ensures that every inch of a flag is laid to rest.
Residents donate their old flags to veterans organizations or Scout troops. Most of the flags disposed of this year were ripped or discolored from the sun or improper storage,Miller said.
“They just don’t represent the county that we know and love anymore,” he said.
Congress deemed Flag Day the most appropriate date for flag disposal ceremonies to be conducted. Flag Day was established by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 and is celebrated every June 14.
The county’s veterans organizations have been celebrating disposal services on or around Flag Day for more than 40 years. Ray Crickmore, a U.S. Navy veteran, helped start the tradition in Greenfield upon his return from the Pacific after World War II. More than 1,500 flags were burned at that first ceremony, he said.
“It was tough to get it started but well worth it,” Crickmore said.
Years later, the 89-year-old said it is still important for him to help with the exercises. He was there all Saturday afternoon, helping his fellow veterans organize the donated flags and ready the 40/8-owned park where the ceremony was conducted.
Hancock County honor guard members put in a lot of effort to collect old flags from residents and businesses across the area, Workman said. The veterans received a grant last year from the Hancock County Community Foundation to buy a stock of new flags and instruction cards listing the rules for proper flag display and storage. They drop these items off wherever they see a worn flag on an empty flagpole, he said.
The group usually keeps busy on and around Flag Day, Workman said; honor guards are staples at military funerals, parades and other patriotic celebrations.
“We do a lot of different work, and I think the community really appreciates it,” Workman said.