‘Each one of these flags has a story’

A cooling breeze wafts the smell of cooking burgers and brats through the pavilion at the Veterans Campground on Big Marine Lake in Minnesota. The food will feed dozens of veterans and their families, who have packed the pavilion for the campground’s annual flag retirement ceremony.

Held on the second Saturday of June each year for decades, the flag retirement ceremony has become a tradition. Thousands of flags from across Minnesota are brought to the campground northeast of the Twin Cities — from American Legion posts, VFW posts, DAV posts, businesses, and citizens.

Each year, a different American Legion post conducts the flag retirement ceremony. This year, it’s Post 225 in nearby Forest Lake providing the ceremony participants.

But before Saturday’s event, there’s the matter of preparing some 15,000 American flags for proper retirement.

The day before, on June 11, volunteers gather at the ball diamond down the hill from the pavilion, where the steel bed — built especially for the flag disposal — is set up.

Ken Larson, the campground manager and a veteran of the Army National Guard, acknowledges the bed, a 10-foot-high open frame, six feet wide by 12 feet long, is due to be replaced in a year or two. The heat from the fire takes it toll.

“We’ll see what this one does this year,” Larson says.

There’s a process to the way the flags are set up. A layer of flags are set down — “We ask for volunteers to come up and take each individual flag and spread it out, all the way up to the top,” Larson says — followed by a layer of kerosene. Then another layer of flags, another layer of kerosene, and so on.

“The reason we do that is because when we retire the flags, we don’t want them to smolder,” says Teresa Ash, vice commander of the Department of Minnesota’s 4th and 5th Districts. “We want them to go up in flames honorably and respectfully.”

The participants and the audience acknowledge the emotions the flag retirement ceremony elicits.

“It does get you a little choked up when you retire these flags,” Larson says.

“It’s a way of showing our respect to our flag,” says Bob Dettmer, a member of the state House of Representatives and of Post 225 who served 25 years in the Army Reserve.

Harry Johnson, the commander of Post 39 in North St. Paul, was one of the volunteers stacking flags on Friday. “This ceremony here … it brings tears, just knowing I was part of that. It means the world to me.”

And, Johnson, says, it’s important to note that this ceremony isn’t “burning flags.”

“I am not going to burn a flag, I am going to retire the flag in the proper etiquette way that symbolizes our faith and our patriotism,” Johnson says.

To Ash, the emotions of the ceremony come down to this: “Each one of these flags has a story. Each and every one of these flags has a story. This flag could have flown over a base. A little flag could have been a flag that was used in a parade. We actually get flags that family members have been given, burial flags, that they don’t have a place for it and want to bring them up here.

“Each flag has a story; each flag is important. And each flag represented a soldier, a family, a base, a place, and the freedom of this country. And that flag deserves to be respected.”

The ceremony concludes with the proper disposal of the flags, which have fulfilled their worthy service. Members of the crowd gather at the bottom of the hill overlooking the blaze, braving the heat. The cool breeze carries the black smoke from the thousands of flags up into the blue Minnesota sky.