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Date: July 1, 2010
Byline: Sam Scott

Protector of the flag

Jerry Jaramillo had just sat down for his morning ritual of coffee, pastry and the newspaper Tuesday when he spotted something an old drill sergeant couldn't ignore.

There in the background of a newspaper photo of a teacher in a Los Angeles classroom, Jaramillo eyed the American flag hanging vertically with the blue field of stars in the upper right corner.

For Jaramillo, the image jumped off the page. The nation's Flag Code ordains that the flag's blue union should always be in the upper left when displayed against a wall — even if it's turned vertically. Otherwise, Jaramillo said it's like the Stars and Stripes are being dipped in defeat.

And so Jaramillo, an Army veteran, did what he's done countless times with area businesses, homeowners and even the Santa Rosa City Council. He called the Los Angeles school and politely notified them they were displaying Old Glory all wrong.

“I fought for the flag,” he said. “People died for it. Families are hurting for it. If you're going to display it, display it right.”

The Fourth of July weekend, of course, will feature no shortage of fluttering flags, a few no doubt afoul of the codes and customs of proper flag etiquette.

Jaramillo said he won't go looking for infractions, but neither will he be shy from pointing them out either.

The basics of flag protocol are spelled out in the federal Flag Code, which is largely comprised of common sense. But even in Washington, D.C. it can be surprising how often people fail Flag 101, said Nancy Mitchell, former director of protocol for the Library of Congress, who runs The Etiquette Advocate, a consulting company.

She's seen flags used as bunting, table covers, and clothes, all violations of the reverence that is the general guideline for displaying the flag.

Other rules are more subtle. Mitchell objects to politicians festooning the background of speeches with numerous flags. The flag is supposed to be revered as a living thing, a symbolism that is undermined when several are displayed, she said.

Like Jaramillo, she doesn't hesitate to point out lapses. She has written to Speaker Nancy Pelossi, President Obama and the George Bush Presidential Library after spotting errors in their flag protocol.

“We can't get too lax or we're going to lose the symbolism altogether and the respect,” she said.

Jaramillo's own reverence for the flag is hard won. He was drafted into the Army in 1969, serving 31 years, including a deployment to Iraq from 1993 to 1995 that resulted in injuries to his right arm and leg that makes him dependent on a cane for walking long distances.

During the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Jaramillo served in casualty notification and funeral details, handing grieving families the folded flag that marks the nation's gratitude for their sacrifice.

Retired from the Army since 2005, Jaramillo still gets his high-and-tight cropped once a week. His house on Hoen Avenue is as spotless as you'd expect of a drill sergeant.

And every morning as he takes his mini pinscher, Sarge, for a walk, Jaramillo carries the flag from his dresser and puts it out in front of his house where it flies until evening.

“It lets people know a veteran lives here,” he said.

But even some of Jaramillo's fellow veterans don't know the full rules of flag display. A couple years ago, Jaramillo was visiting a friend in Healdsburg when he passed a house with American, California and Marine Corps flags displayed outside.

Jaramillo knocked on the door, thanked the man for his service and, after chatting for while, asked if the man knew the proper procedure for displaying flags.

He didn't.

The American flag should fly in the center and highest point of such a group — or to the farthest right (the observer's left). No other flag should ever fly to the right and same level of the U.S. flag, Jaramillo said.

Such rules may seem random, but there are reasons behind the customs, Mitchell said. The right-most position is the internationally recognized position of honor, a custom dating back to Biblical references to being on the right hand of God, she said.

Jaramillo said most people take his advice in stride. If they ignore him, he goes on his merry way, sure that he won't be the last one to impart the message.

“There's a lot of young kids coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan that never thought they'd be in that situation who now think how important it is that they fought and protected that flag,” Jaramillo said.

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