To celebrate Flag Day this past Thursday, American Legion Post 180 retired nearly 2,000 flags by burning them in trash cans behind their lodge in Vienna.
The flags had piled up over the past couple of months in three drop boxes where people may place battered flags knowing that the group will dispose of them according to code, which calls for either burial or burning.
After being inspected, with still serviceable flags removed, the remaining are cut down to manageable size and the solemn ceremony ensues.
"These flags have become faded and worn over the graves of our departed comrades and the dead soldiers and sailors of all our nation’s wars," said Sergeant-at-Arms Tom Bonner.
Later in the ceremony, Commander Bob Hatter explained the symbolism the flags carry with them: "A flag may be a flimsy bit 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, lived for and died for."
The members then begin using long poles to place the flags into the fires. The heat from the trash cans becomes intense, and the smoke clouds the air with the smell of burning nylon.
Jo Anne Herrity was unaware of the procedure for disposing of old flags until recently. She and a few others dropped by Post 180 to watch it unfold.
"If you can get rid of them in some uniform way that's acceptable to everybody it seems like you're doing the right thing," Herrity said. "It's much better than just putting it in a trash bag and throwing it in a dump."
Joyce Miller, of the Virginia American Legion Press Association, brought a friend to show her the ceremony.
"It’s hard," Miller said. "You argue at people and see it on the news; they’re burning our flag and look what we’re doing. But we’re doing it with respect. That’s the difference."
Lori Byroade-Sheperd joined in and burned a flag over one of the fires. Watching it go up in flames left her overcome with emotion.
"I remember my father," Byroade-Sheperd said. "It was an honor to do that. I’m proud of the people who are up here because that’s what the American Legion is about."