Montana road trip – Flag retirement

I’d never really appreciated just how much the Stars and Stripes meant to Americans. After the retirement ceremony I was left in no doubt of its importance.

I’d spent an afternoon sailing around Melita Island on Flathead Lake. Lesley and I were passengers, the skipper a US Navy veteran. The temperature was in the mid 30’s, the lake a mill pond, beautiful weather and jaw dropping scenery. This was quite a road trip. One of the aims for the trip was to relax and I think I was probably an 8 or 9 out of 10 on the relaxed scale. Virtually horizontal.

Ward was spot on with his description of Camp Melita, it was certainly somewhere close to paradise. However, Ward was also spot on with his description of the cuisine. Scout food in portions for small people. But, for a short visit, that really didn’t matter. I can certainly sympathize with Ward and his need to escape for a meal every weekend.

I was informed by Ward that there would be a flag retirement ceremony in the evening. I was intrigued. In a former life I spent 8 years in the Royal Air Force and had never come across a retirement ceremony for the Union Flag or the RAF standard.  What was a retirement ceremony? There was more. Forces veterans would also be honoured during the ceremony. Now, I’d never thought of myself as a forces veteran. Does one have to serve a certain number of years to qualify? I’d no idea, but today having served in the RAF,  I was also a ‘vet’.

So, evening arrived and the camp gathered together. Scouts marched in with a large Stars and Stripes, which was to be retirement due to a flaw in the fabric. One of the preferred methods of retirement is burning. My mind understandably started to play images from news channels of the US flag burning in very different circumstances. Curiosity grew, what was I about to witness.

I’d never really appreciated just how much the Stars and Stripes meant to Americans. After the retirement ceremony I was left in no doubt of its importance. The evening will live long in my memory.

The reason for the stars and stripes was explained, confederation and states. Stories of honour and sacrifice. Pride in the country, pride in the flag and what the flag represented. When outsiders peer in to the US and see what appears to be over the top patriotism, this has to be where some of that emotion comes from.

The flag was gradually cut up, first stripes, then the stars. Each piece consigned to the brazier. A length of flag was retained, cut in to smaller pieces with those pieces handed to all in attendance.

We were asked to acknowledge and remember the contribution of fallen service men and women, consider their sacrifice to secure our freedom. Very powerful. And there was more to come. Forces ‘vets were invited to line up and despite my reticence, Ward beckoned me forward to join the others. What a humbling moment. In those few moments I was given more recognition for the 8 years I gave to HM Forces than I’d ever received before.

The ceremony closed with everyone filing past the brazier to add their piece of flag to the fire and finally saluting the flag. Now this is where respect for others and remaining English had to be addressed. The line was drawn for me and there was no saluting the Stars and Stripes. Despite the relocation, I’m still English. Even if I get Canadian citizenship, I’m still English. I’m certainly not American.

The US Navy ‘vet that had skippered the sailboat earlier in the day approached me. With tears in his eyes he thanked me for participating. He was absolutely sincere. I’d respected his country’s tradition and the guy was very, very grateful.

The following morning, Lesley and I would bid Ward farewell and leave Camp Melita. But what a final evening. Maidstone and the UK seemed a very distant memory. Relocation had brought with it unexpected and poignant moments.

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