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Santa Clara Valley Lives: The flag and its respectful retirement

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Robin Chapman/Special to the Town Crier
American Legion Post 558 vets pick up discarded flags from the Post’s unserviceable flag container once a month, and once a year give them a respectful retirement.

We honor America’s military veterans today and every Nov. 11. It is a fitting time to remember how much the American flag means – not just to all of us who live in freedom, but especially to those who have worn the uniform of our country.

My father, an officer in the Pacific in World War II, saw the U.S. flag flown in battle and in honor of the fallen. In later years, when he saw Old Glory catch a breeze – over a baseball game, a firehouse or a courthouse – he often stopped to reflect.

All members of the service are taught flag etiquette. In Los Altos, American Legion Post 558, founded by veterans eight decades ago, has made sharing flag etiquette part of its mission, and one of the key elements of that is the respectful retirement of worn and tattered flags. This explains the curious red, white and blue box that sits in front of Post 558 at 347 First St.

It looks like a mailbox and though it is carefully marked “For Deposit of Unserviceable U.S. Flags Only. Not For Mail,” people do, from time to time, mistakenly drop in a letter. The good news is that veteran Ken Newman, whose grandfather was one of the founders of the post and who collects the flags each month from the box, retrieves any stray mail dropped therein and sends it on its way. But mail isn’t all he finds.

“The funniest thing that ends up in that box are rocks. Kids love to open the chute and drop a rock in there,” he said with a laugh. “It’s OK. I just throw them away.”
And what happens to the flags? Legion posts throughout Santa Clara County (and some Boy Scout troops) collect the worn flags all year, and every June, just before Flag Day on June 14, they truck hundreds of them to Oak Hill Memorial Park in San Jose.

“Oak Hill gets a permit, notifies the fire department, and we place the flags in two containers and set them ablaze,” said U.S. Marine Corps veteran Mike Welsh, a Post 558 member. “This is the proper way to retire a flag and is done with the utmost respect.”

There is no charge for the service. It is just one of the many ways veterans continue to serve. When you meet one – not just on Veterans Day – feel free to tip your hat and say: “Thank you for your service.”

Robin Chapman is a Los Altos native and longtime journalist and historian.

 

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