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How to properly handle the American flag

Folding the flag

Navy Petty Officers 2nd class Joseph Wilhelm and Angela Boyle demonstrate how to properly fold the Stars and Stripes. Video by John D. Simmons
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Navy Petty Officers 2nd class Joseph Wilhelm and Angela Boyle demonstrate how to properly fold the Stars and Stripes. Video by John D. Simmons

With all the recent controversy about the Confederate flag and creepy images of the Charleston mass shooting suspect burning the American flag, the Fourth of July is a great time to focus on basic respect for the Stars and Stripes.

For expert advice, we turned to Navy Yeoman Joseph Wilhelm and Petty Officer Angela Boyle from the Navy Operational Support Center in Charlotte, Capt. Norman Garnes with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department Honor Guard, and Barry Austin, manager of Conder Flag Co. in Charlotte.

The basics

Q. How do you fold the flag?

A. Boyle said a proper military fold includes 13 folds. Two people should fold the flag parallel to the ground, with one holding it firm while the other performs triangular folds. Wilhelm said that after the final fold, the flag should resemble a tri-corner hat, in memory of the soldiers under George Washington and Capt. John Paul Jones. The final result should show only the stars, with no red exposed. Garnes said the folding of the flag started with the military needing a way to honorably store it overnight.

Q. What is common etiquette?

A. The American flag should never touch the ground, be flown upside down or have anything placed on top of it, Boyle said. Austin said that when the flag is hanging either horizontally or vertically, the blue field of stars should always be in the upper left. “Don’t burn it it, don’t do anything crazy like that,” Garnes said. “Don’t deface it.”

Controversial displays

Q. Do you really have to take it down at night?

A. The American flag should be taken down at sunset and put up again at sunrise. “If it’s going to be displayed overnight, lights have to be shining on it,” Garnes said. You also should take it down in bad weather, Austin said.

Q. What about when other flags are also flown?

A. Any flag flying next to the American flag – including the Confederate flag – should be flown lower and on the flag’s right (so on the left as you’re facing it), Boyle said.

Q. Can I fly the flag from my truck?

A. Boyle said any American flag flown outside should be an “all-weather” flag. And Austin said while there is nothing outlining flying the flag in a pickup truck, he wouldn’t personally do it. But Garnes said if that’s how someone wants to show pride in their country, “I don’t see anything wrong with that.” But you must repair or replace a frayed flag.

Anything else we need to know?

Q. Can I wear the flag?

A. “You’re not supposed to use the flag as a cape, or any kind of real article of clothing per se,” Austin said. But, he said, stars and stripes are considered different than the actual flag, and are fine to be displayed on clothing or anywhere else. “People take a lot of liberties with it,” he added. Boyle said the American flag technically shouldn’t be sewn or worn on anything, except in the military. But Garnes said if someone wanted to wear it, it’s within their rights to.

Q. Is flag lawn decor OK?

A. Flags on stakes in the ground are fine, Boyle said. And Austin said there’s nothing wrong with a flag hanging on a dowel or from someone’s house.

Q. How do you dispose of a flag?

A. Boyle said that worn flags should be taken down, and the respectful way to retire a flag is to burn it. Garnes said the Boy Scouts of America and the military have a ceremony to properly retire a flag. “It’s a respectful way of (burning) the flag versus doing it out of disrespect,” Austin said.

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