Ask the Chief: honoring the Flag

Everywhere I go, I meet a veteran with a story that teaches me something about us as Americans. Some I meet are veterans of WWII and Korea, and some are quite a bit younger as veterans of combat tours in Afghanistan or Iraq. Others recall some detestable conduct they experienced from fellow Americans – incidents of racism, bigotry, or suspicion- but joined the military because of the promise that America meant to them. Some gave up promising careers to go defend America after September 11th. And quite a few I meet are immigrants who were willing to give up everything including their lives, to join the military, fight for the United States and earn citizenship.

Do you know the meaning of each fold of a properly folded American flag?

-George x, veteran and filmmaker

In a little motel office not far outside Yosemite National Park, my wife and I met the “staff”, George, who today was the snow shoveler, registration clerk and information concierge. We chatted this evening when we went looking for hot water to make cocoa, and he was very proud to share with us a story and a video about the American Flag. As a foreign-born American soldier, he earned citizenship through his wartime service. As a film student not long after his enlistment ended, a conversation with a Vietnam veteran sparked the momentum to make a documentary on the meaning of the Flag. With the participation of several notable Hollywood actors and military veterans, he produced the film directed by John Duffy. George gave us a DVD copy of “The Flag” which he promised “gives something to watch when the TV reception here is not good”.

Even as a retired Navy Senior Chief, I couldn’t immediately recall what the 13 individual folds of the flag I lowered and folded 3 decades ago meant, when it was my duty to execute with precision at Evening Colors. But the United States ensign has meant a great deal to me and my family for generations. Like one of the scenes in the film recreated what spurred a Vietnam vet’s interest in getting this film made. The idea that Americans would think it appropriate to burn an American flag, for whatever protest they have with our Government’s bureaucrats and elected officials, still wells up the same response from veterans. Like me, it might be fury at the disrespect shown veterans who have defended the principles, people, and homeland of the United States; and disappointment that people, never having suffered what most of the world has endured, trash symbols that give them more freedoms and choices than most.

  • First Fold: A Symbol of Life
  • Second Fold: Symbol of our belief in eternal life
  • Third: made in honor and remembrance of the veteran departing our ranks, and who gave a portion of his or her life for the defense of our country to attain peace throughout the world
  • Fourth: represents our weaker nature; as American citizens trusting in God, it is Him we turn to in times of peace, as well as in times of war, for His divine guidance
  • Fifth:  tribute to our country. In the words of Stephen Decatur, “Our country, in dealing with other countries, may she always be right, but it is still our country, right or wrong.”
  • Sixth: is for where our hearts lie. It is with our heart that we pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
  • Seventh: is a tribute to our Armed Forces for it is through the armed forces that we protect our country and our flag against all enemies, whether they be found within or without the boundaries of our republic.
  • Eighth: is a tribute to the one who entered into the valley of the shadow of death, that we might see the light of day, and to honor our mother, for whom it flies on Mother’s Day.
  • Ninth:  a tribute to womanhood. It has been through their faith, love, loyalty and devotion that has molded the character of the men and women who have made this country great.
  • Tenth: a tribute to father, who has also given his sons and daughters for the defense of our country since he or she was first born.
  • Eleventh: represents the lower portion of the seal of King David and King Solomon and glorifies God of Abraham (honored by Jew or Muslim)
  • Twelfth: represents an emblem of eternity and glorifies God the Father, the Son and Holy Ghost.
  • Thirteenth: when the flag is completely folded, the stars are uppermost, reminding us of our national motto, “In God We Trust.”

Ed: This list is explained in the documentary, and this same description is given on military.com; some websites, including government sites, incorrectly attribute the folds to represent the original 13 colonies.

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