Date: October 30, 2007
Byline: Sara Bonisteel and The Associated Press
Furor After Flag-Folding Ceremony Pulled From Cemeteries
A group of congressmen has asked the Department of Veterans Affairs to reconsider its ban on the flag-folding ceremony at military funerals after the agency decided last month to streamline burials at federal cemeteries.
"The flag folding recitation is a longstanding tradition which brings comfort to the living and honor to the deceased," Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., writes in his letter Tuesday signed by 11 other congressmen. "The recitations accompanying each fold pay tribute to the service and sacrifice of our veterans and their families, the nation they proudly serve, and the beliefs that they hold dear."
Veterans Affairs made the new policy decision last month, after a complaint was filed to the White House, said Rees Lloyd, a member of the American Legion's Memorial Honor Detail for services at Riverside National Cemetery in California.
"To me, it's a slap in the face for every veteran, every member of the Memorial Honor Detail and every family of the deceased veteran," Lloyd said.
At issue are secondary meanings attached to the folding of the flag. As the honor guard makes the 13 folds — traditionally representing the original colonies — they recite "the first fold of our flag is a symbol of life, the second fold is a symbol of our belief in the eternal life, etc."
A complaint about the recitation for the 11th fold — "in the eyes of a Hebrew citizen, represents the lower portion of the seal of King David and King Solomon, and glorifies, in their eyes, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" — garnered a complaint and prompted the ban.
In a Sept. 27 memo, the National Cemetery Administration halted the ceremony. It was an effort to create uniform services throughout the military graveyard system, spokesman Mike Nacincik said.
But it's caused a furor among veterans. Members of the American Legion have been flooding national headquarters since the decision, according to Ramona Joyce, an organization spokeswoman.
"We definitely think is a matter left up to the families," she said. "It's a nice ceremony; we've been doing it for years. Our honor guards have been doing it.
"It's respectful and it's something the family should be able to choose to have done if they so wish for their veteran," Joyce said.
Nacincik said the 13-fold recital is not part of the U.S. Flag Code and is not government-approved.
"The entirety of this issue is an absurdity that shows political correctness and secular cleansing run amok," Lloyd said. "This is about families of deceased veterans putting to rest their loved ones. No one should interfere with their choices."
The 12th fold recitation is geared to Christians, saying the fold "represents an emblem of eternity and glorifies, in their eyes, God the Father, the Son and Holy Ghost."
In the Legion's burning ceremony for the dignified disposal of unserviceable flags, a chaplain invokes the name of God with lines like "as they yield their substance to the fire, may your holy light spread over us and bring our hearts renewed devotion to God and country," Joyce said.
"When we got back from the war, we didn't ask for a whole lot," said Bobby Castillo, 85, a World War II Navy veteran. "We just want to give our veterans the respect they deserve. No one has ever complained to us about it. I just don't understand."
Lloyd and Castillo are part of a 16-member detail that have performed military honors at more than 1,400 services. They were preparing to read the flag-folding remarks at the Riverside cemetery when graveyard staff stopped them.
Charlie Waters, parliamentarian for the American Legion of California, said he's advising memorial honor details to ignore the edict.
"This is nuts," Waters told the Press-Enterprise by telephone from Fresno. "There are 26 million veterans in this country and they're not going to take us all to prison."
Nacincik said that while the flag-folding narrative includes references to God that the government does not endorse, the main reason for the new rules is uniformity.
"We are looking at consistency," Nacincik said. "We think that's important."
Rabbi Yitzhak Miller of Temple Beth El said he understands the ban.
"It is a perfect example of government choosing to ignore religion in order to avoid offending some religions," Miller said. "To me, ignoring religion in general is just as problematic as endorsing any one religion."
Shuler's letter urged Veterans Affairs to change its mind.
"Please reconsider the policy and allow the Memorial Honor Detail volunteers to perform the traditional flag-folding recitation if requested by the family of the deceased," he wrote.
Lloyd said the honor guard would decide whether to defy the ban next Tuesday, when it will serve at more military funerals.
"We are going to abide by the wishes of the families," Lloyd said. "Not some bureaucrat in Washington, D.C. Period."
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