SHERIDAN — One by one, men and women dropped the red, white and blue into the orange flames inside a burn barrel.
Within minutes, the stars and stripes on the American flag turned to ash, a black plume of smoke and the smell of kerosene billowed into the sky.
The American flag was not burned out of protest, but out of respect. For years, many of these flags waved outside houses and businesses, but either the elements or time caused Old Glory to fade or tatter.
In a somber and powerful ceremony, veterans, civilians and Boy Scouts retired dozens of American flags on Flag Day at the Sheridan College Veterans Plaza. The ceremony was put on by the American Legion Post 7.
So what’s the proper way to dispose of a flag? That depends who you ask.
Most codes suggest flags be disposed of by fire, which American Legion Post 7 Commander Jim Schlenker admits can make people uneasy given that it’s typically done out of disrespect for the United States or out of protest. However, he argues, disposing of a flag by fire is honorable if done properly.
“You aren’t burning it out of protest, you are burning it as an honor,” Schlenker said. “You are honoring the flag.”
All too often, people do not understand the proper steps to dispose of their flag, Schlenker said, so they toss it in the garbage. Many claim, though, that is not the proper way to honor a flag’s service.
The American Legion followed a procedure outlined in its bylaws. The ceremony includes a script that members must recite verbatim, saying the Pledge of Allegiance and singing the “Star Spangled Banner,” a prayer by the American Legion chaplain and the playing of “To the Colors” on a bugle.
“The American Legion’s Ceremony for Disposal of Unserviceable Flags is a dignified tribute to the U.S. flag and to its symbolism,” the American Legion bylaws states. “We therefore conclude that this ceremony is both legal and proper, and that it is an effective instrument for promoting enhanced respect for the U.S. flag.”
Other organizations, like the Veterans of Foreign Wars, follow similar procedures.
Flags are deemed “unserviceable” after inspection by officers in the local American Legion. Unserviceable does not mean it is dirty or slightly ripped, Schlenker said, but beyond repair.
“The important thing is that if a flag is very dirty or ragged, it has to be properly disposed of,” said Goldie Steigelman, a member of the American Legion Honor Guard.
It was the first time performing this ceremony for almost all of those who participated Wednesday, and many said it was an emotional and powerful experience.
For Les Meyers, Wednesday’s ceremony was overwhelming. The only member of the Patriot Guard Riders in Sheridan said it was an honor to lay the flags down into the burning container.
“It’s kind of chilling,” Meyers said. “I had goosebumps seeing this thing happening.”
American Legion members hope to make flag retiring an annual tradition. Schlenker said the organization may even hold another ceremony — possibly as soon as Veterans Day.
The American Legion will accept all worn flags to be properly retired at their headquarters at 137 N. Brooks St. in Sheridan.