A small but solemn group watched from the lawn west of the Lake County Courthouse on Sunday afternoon as members of the Arthur Peterson Post No. 136 of the American Legion held a ceremony for the disposal of unserviceable flags during which 517 flags were burned.
"These flags are a symbol of all the work of our comrades, our military and our veterans," said Lake County Veterans Service Officer Courtney Van Zanten prior to the ceremony. "Rather than throw them in the trash, we honorably retire them."
As members of the Chester American Legion post prepared to begin the ceremony by removing sticks from cemetery flags, other flags which have been collected in recent years by the Ronald Westby VFW Post 2638 were delivered. By the time the ceremony started, a trash can filled to the top and three boxes full of worn flags awaited burning.
VFW Quartermaster Danny Frisby-Griffith explained why so many flags were presented for burning. He said the Flag Day ceremony was the first that has been held in Madison since he moved to the community in 2014.
The American Legion website indicates the ceremony has been an integral part of burning unserviceable flags since 1937, when the organization's national convention passed a resolution recognizing the importance of showing proper respect for the flag and formally adopting the ceremony which was used by members of the Chester American Legion on Sunday.
Rod Smith and Frank Smith joined Van Zanten, who is also commander of the post, for the ceremony.
One flag from among the many dropped off for disposal symbolically represented all of them and was presented for inspection and disposal. A series of formal questions was part of the presentation and reflected the significance of the flags.
Is the present condition of these flags the result of their usual service as the emblem of our country? Have any of these flags served any other purpose?
As the series of questions drew to a close with the recommendation that "since these flags have become faded and worn in tribute of service and love" they be destroyed, the commander described the American flag with these words:
"A flag may be a flimsy piece of printed gauze or a beautiful banner of finest silk. Its intrinsic value may be trifling or great, but its real value is beyond price for it is a precious symbol of all that we and our comrades have worked for and lived for and died for -- a free nation of free men, true to the faith of the past, devoted to the ideals and practice of justice, freedom and democracy."
With these words, the first flag was placed in the barrel using a long rod. One by one, other flags were placed in a barrel where a fire burned while those in attendance watched. Due to the quantity of flags to be burned, the ceremony lasted until late afternoon.
The ceremony for the disposal of unserviceable flags was held on Flag Day, a national holiday established by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 to mark the anniversary of the decree by the Second Continental Congress adopting a flag with 13 stripes, alternating red and white, and a constellation of stars to represent the young nation. The number of stars on the flag has increased as other states joined the nation so it now holds 50.