As the sun rose over the Glen Head-Glenwood American Legion last Saturday morning, two smoke pillars cut across the sky. In the parking lot below, two steel drums burned brightly with orange flames, while a few feet away, a year’s worth of American flags were piled high on a blue tarp.
It is a Flag Day tradition for legionnaires nationwide to commemorate the creation of the country’s banner with a burning ceremony. “The only respectful way to dispose of the flag after it’s served its life is to burn it,” said William Laderer, the post’s commander. “The flag is the symbol of our country, and it should be respected.”
The Unserviceable Flags Ceremony has been an integral part of American Legion ritual since September 1937, when the Legion’s national convention passed a resolution to encourage proper respect for the flag and provide for its disposal in a dignified manner.
Each year, Glen Head’s post collects flags from the community that are torn, tattered, worn or otherwise deemed unserviceable. Residents are encouraged to drop off flags at a mailbox outside the Legion hall. “We ask all people to never let the flag be disposed of in an improper manner,” Laderer said.
Saturday’s ceremony began with a speech by Laderer and Chaplain Ralph Casey that paid homage to the retired flags. Veterans bowed their heads in silence when Casey read, “So long as the principles of truth, justice and charity for all remain deeply rooted in human hearts, [the flag] shall continue to be the enduring banner of the United States of America.”
Then veteran Richard Hartney, of Sea Cliff, chose the largest flag from the pile. With scissors, he cut it apart, separating the patchwork of stars from the 13 stripes.
He laid the blue portion of the flag, which he said represents “the true blue loyalty of [the nation’s] defenders” onto the fire first, followed by the red stripes, which symbolize human sacrifice, and then the white stripes, which symbolize liberty.
“We’ve had this ceremony at the American Legion for as long as I can remember,” Hartney said. “Flag Day is celebrated across the country, and we’re a part of our nation’s history.”
Nakeem Grant contributed to this story.