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American Legion disposes of American flags the right way

MORGANTOWN — There is a right way and a wrong way to dispose of an American flag that is no longer suitable for use.

There’s even a code for it, known simply as the U.S. Flag Code.  The code reads: “The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.”

A local section of the American Legion, Post 174, conducted a mass proper disposal of decommissioned American flags on Tuesday night after a routine meeting.

Post Commander Matthew Sampson said the “dignified way” in which American flags are supposed to be disposed of typically involves a ceremony to accompany the burning of flags that are no longer suitable for use.

“You’re recognizing that it’s served its purpose and now is identified as no longer serviceable,” Sampson said of the ceremony.

He said to dispose of the flag by burning it would leave no useable remainder of the flag that could potentially be subject to misuse, abuse or vandalization. This is opposed to simply throwing the flag in the trash, where it would take time to decompose and could be retrieved and used improperly.

Robert Sanders and Elaine Sampson unfold the ceremonial flag during the flag retirement ceremony on Tuesday, at the American Legion Post 174.

According to Sampson, throwing an American flag in the garbage is also disrespectful to the flag.

He said the proposed alternative respectful methods of disposing of an unserviceable American flag still have the potential to be troublesome, whereas ceremonially burning it effectively destroys the flag in a dignified manner.

“I’ve heard it’s OK to bury a flag, but you run into the same problem — it takes a long time to decompose, so it’s not as good as burning it in a ceremony,” he said.

Sampson said Post 174’s ceremony would be held as the weather permitted, though it would take more than a little drizzle to cancel.

“It would have to be pretty bad if we give up on it,” he said.

The ceremony was set to be done in the style of the American Legion, as different organizations have developed different versions of flag ceremonies since the U.S. Flag Code does not stipulate the way in which the ceremony must be conducted.

“We’ve got a whole ton of flags that we’ve accumulated at our post, so we’re long overdue on doing this ceremony,” Sampson said.

He said traditionally, the ceremony is held June 14. This year, Post 174 wasn’t able to conduct it on that date, so they decided to hold it after the normal monthly meeting for July, when members were already present.

An American flag is burnt during the flag retirement ceremony on Tuesday, at the American Legion Post 174.
Post Commander Matthew Sampson disposes of flags during the flag retirement ceremony on Tuesday, at the American Legion Post 174.

The ceremony was the first Post 174 had hosted in several years, according to Sampson.

With the ceremony, Post 174 also hopes to gain some visibility in the community.

“Our post is growing and trying to be a positive impact in the community, and this is one way to demonstrate that,” he said.

To Sampson, the American flag represents our republic, as stated in the Pledge of Allegiance.

He said that our republic has a long history of liberty, the American way of life, truth and justice.

The flag also represents current and past service members, particularly those who have given their lives while serving their country, he said. The American Legion recognizes those individuals on Memorial Day by placing American flags on their graves. American flags are also placed at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.

“It’s a pretty big question, with a big, long answer and you’re probably going to get a different answer from any individual you ask,” Sampson said.

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