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Cover Story

With honor & pride

6/12/2013

Through no fault of his own, this is a story about Sammy.

Sammy lived in the tiny town of Notasulga, Ala., for years. Every day he would cross the street from his house to the United States Post Office in town, where he’d spend the day roaming the grounds and greeting customers. A complaint in early 2009 caused Sammy to lose his place at the Post Office, and he spent the next several months aimlessly roaming around town, seemingly lost. Then, in June of 2009, Sammy was struck by a car and killed while crossing the street. On July 16, 2009, in a show of remembrance for his years of devotion, the Notasulga Post Office lowered its flag to half-staff in memory of Sammy.

Sammy was a cat.

We live in cynical times. We’re a politically fractured country with a stagnating economy, living as a part of a larger world with its own slew of big-picture problems. As such, getting worked up over something like how people fly a flag can seem a little trivial. Even hokey.

It’s a curious thing, the relationship between the average American and his flag. For many Americans, even the cynical ones, the flag stands for what we would like the country to be. The stars and stripes serve as a symbol of America’s great history and potential. What exactly that potential represents will vary depending on which side of the aisle you sit politically, but many of us have an ideal we’d like to see our country live up to. The flag embodies that.

According to a 2010 Gallup poll, Americans who identify themselves as Republican or politically conservative are three times more likely to purchase and display an American flag. Ironically — from the motif of Toby Keith’s chain of restaurants, to Sarah Palin signing flags at rallies, to those “these colors don’t run” bumper stickers — those same people are the ones most likely to display or use the flag in a manner that violates the United States Flag Code.

                 

The Code

The U.S. Flag Code is a confounding piece of legislation. Technically, the code is a part of federal law, but it contains no language for enforcement of violations. In fact, with the 1989 Texas v. Johnson decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled that punitive enforcement of the Code is in direct violation of the First Amendment.

And so, the United States Flag Code has been relegated to a toothless list of polite suggestions for how to treat and display one’s flag. Some of its sections are commonly misunderstood (you don’t have to burn your flag if it touches the ground, for example), while the rest is either unknown by the general public or regularly disregarded. But if there is one piece of the code that is almost universally still recognized and mostly understood, it’s the guidelines for displaying the flag at half-staff.

Col. Greg Hapgood has served his country for more than two decades.

Col. Greg Hapgood has served his country for more than two decades.

Flying the flag at half-staff is a big deal, specifically because of what it represents. Under the original wording of the Flag Code, the stars and stripes are lowered to half-staff upon the death of the United States president or other heads of state, or at the discretion of the president, usually in moments of national tragedy such as the Challenger disaster, the Oklahoma City bombing and Columbine, to name a few.

A flag set to half-staff puts the community — the nation — on notice. It takes acts of courage and ultimate sacrifice and makes them public knowledge. It’s a visceral way for people to share in remembrance and reflection.

The guidelines for that reflection changed in 2007 when President George W. Bush signed The Army Specialist Joseph P. Micks Federal Flag Code Amendment Act. This provision granted governors of individual states the authority to lower the flags in their respective states at their own discretion, rather than solely on the president’s say-so. As the name of the act might imply, this was to allow governors to honor individual fallen soldiers within their home state. The “at the Governor’s discretion” bit, however, has led to some controversial decisions, such as the one in Alabama in 2009.

In May 2011, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie ordered U.S. flags in his state lowered to half-staff in honor of Harry Shatel, a long-time high school basketball coach. The next month, the stars and stripes were half-staffed again by Christie for the recently departed saxophonist Clarence Clemons. Then, in February of 2012, Christie ordered his state’s flags lowered for the sudden death of Whitney Houston.

A month earlier, in January 2012, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett lowered his state’s flags for three days in honor of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno — a move that many found particularly galling at the time due to Paterno’s ongoing entanglement in a horrifying child sex abuse scandal.

Christie and Corbett have both defended the uses of their authority to do so, citing the honorees’ lasting impression upon their home states. But many people believe the honor of a half-staff memorial should be reserved for those who served their country rather than simply entertained it.

“Expanding this honor only diminishes its meaning,” read an editorial in New Jersey Lawman Magazine after Christie honored Houston. “Rifle salutes, aircraft flyovers and half-staffed flags are among those honors, and they should not be on the public menu.”

That sentiment is shared locally as well.

“It’s not disrespectful (to honor Houston), but she didn’t serve her country,” said Beaverdale Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Auxiliary member Diane Slonine. “She wasn’t in the armed forces. It was sad that she passed away, but they can honor her in a different way.”

The Honor Board hangs on the wall in the Veterans of Foreign Wars building in Beaverdale. The blue tags name veterans and the red are for auxiliary members. Each shield marks a fallen soldier.

The Honor Board hangs on the wall in the Veterans of Foreign Wars building in Beaverdale. The blue tags name veterans and the red are for auxiliary members. Each shield marks a fallen soldier.

“The flag represents a living country,” reads Section 8 of the Flag Code, “and is itself considered a living thing.” It’s those last seven words that, perhaps better than anything else, serve to explain the importance the flag is to military personnel. Fighting and dying in defense of the flag means to literally give one life up for another.

“Once you join the military, you look at the flag in a whole new way,” explained Iowa National Guard Director of Public Affairs, Colonel Gregory Hapgood. “When I see the flag fly, it’s very much a part of who I am.”

That’s why Slonine and Col. Hapgood both take Iowa’s commitment to honoring its fallen military personnel very seriously. Thus far, it’s an endeavor in which the state has been very successful. In 2007, Gov. Chet Culver signed a standing proclamation stating that the state’s flags were to be lowered to half-staff on the date of interment for any fallen soldier. It’s a proclamation that current Gov. Terry Branstad has kept in place and from which Iowa has not wavered. Going back at least as far as January 2011, Iowa has yet to lower its flags for a celebrity — a record recently challenged (and extended) with the passing of longtime Hawkeye personality Jim Zabel.

“We believe that if somebody gives their life in the line of service, they deserve to have the flag flown at half-mast,” said Branstad Communications Director, Tim Albrecht. “It’s an important reminder of just what these individuals are giving up. Iowans take very seriously their role in honoring these individuals.”

Slonine agrees. “Look at that wall over there,” she said, pointing to the Beaverdale VFW’s Wall of Honor. “Every name up there with a little badge in the corner, that’s someone who gave their life for this country. We never forget that, and that’s what we honor through the flag.”

                 

Who died?

But just as it has become easier for states to honor their own, it has become increasingly difficult to get the message out to the people about exactly who is being honored. Twenty years ago, The Des Moines Register was still the paper of record. If you lived in Polk, Dallas, Story or any other surrounding county, odds are you got most of your news from the Register’s pages. But now, with the explosion of other news alternatives, a newspaper is less important in emerging generations’ daily information-gathering.

“I haven’t just picked up a Register to read in years,” said 33-year-old Des Moines information technology specialist Tom McGee. He said that, between Reddit, Huffington Post and various RSS feeds on his phone, “I can’t fathom only getting one point of view on something.”

And while that approach may be great for shaping a world view, it can make smaller, local news harder to come by.

“I never know why the flag is at half-mast anymore,” McGee admitted. “But that’s probably just because I’m not looking in the right places.”

“I think it’s more difficult to get the word out to people because information is so fragmented today,” Albrecht offered. “Most of our notices now are posted via social networking.”

Much of that information is disseminated via www.halfstaff.org. The website lists half-staff notifications for all 50 states at its website (Iowa’s are at www.ia.halfstaff.org), as well as issuing general proclamations through Facebook and Twitter. Albrecht points out that all of the governor’s proclamations — including half-staff notices — are posted to a dedicated government page at www.governor.iowa.gov. Additionally, like any well-connected entity nowadays, the governor has official Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr pages, all of which assist in spreading the message of the day.

“It’s harder today, but I think we do a good job of getting the information out there,” Albrecht said.

                 

The America Brand

For the past 12 years, America has been plunged into a garish brand of bumper sticker patriotism. The U.S. flag is increasingly being used as the logo for the America Brand, and this message of faux patriotic largesse is often at odds with the understated dignity inherent in the flag itself. Even as people engage in more and more ostentatious displays of the flag, they often do so with less regard for the proper meaning of and respect for the flag as a stand-alone symbol.

A screen shot of Walmart’s website, where Faded Glory swim trunks depicting the red, white and blue are available for purchase, though wearing the American flag is a violation of the U.S. Flag Code.

A screen shot of Walmart’s website, where Faded Glory swim trunks depicting the red, white and blue are available for purchase, though wearing the American flag is a violation of the U.S. Flag Code.

Those words from the Flag Code bear repeating here: “The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing.” Doesn’t that mean that every time we take something so duly hallowed and iron John Wayne’s face onto it, or turn it into a pair of shorts, or lower it to half-staff for a cat, we denigrate the men and women who so bravely fought and died for our right to the free speech to do such things?

“To me, it’s ridiculous,” said retired Army Specialist Tim Tucker. “People risked their whole lives for that flag. For somebody to disrespect it, that’s just unthinkable to me.”

“I’m not really a big military guy,” said McGee. “I never served, and I don’t necessarily agree with some of the military action that Obama or Bush have engaged in. But I wouldn’t belittle or cheapen the amount of courage it takes to volunteer your life for something bigger.

“I was at Walmart the other day, and I saw some U.S. flag swim trunks. Again, I don’t think of myself as real gung-ho patriotic or whatever, but even I was like, ‘I know what people do in pools. You’re going to do that through a flag?’ I mean, that can’t be alright.”

At the end of the day, most of the Flag Code is a lost cause. We’re probably never going to stop Bank of America or Budweiser or even Dewey Ford from using the flag in their advertisements (section 3). We might never see a Super Bowl halftime show without a giant flag stretched across the field (section 8-c) and there will probably always be flag napkins, bumper stickers and packaging (section 8-i).

We can make sure to afford the flag the proper respect, regardless of how one feels about the president or about war — if not for any personal belief we hold, then for the memory of the friends, relatives and loved ones in each of our lives who have given themselves over to the ideal for which the flag stands. And not just on Flag Day (which is June 14, by the way) or Independence Day or 9/11.

The next time the flag is lowered to half-staff in Iowa, McGee will know why. He’s added the www.halfstaff.org RSS feed to the alerts he gets on his phone.

“My grandfather died on Okinawa (during WWII),” he said via a post-interview follow-up text. “My dad never knew him. There are a lot of babies growing up right now in the same situation. I think about that more now.” CV              

Chad Taylor is an award-winning news journalist and music writer from Des Moines.

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