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Date: July 4, 2006
Byline: Keith Rogers

Honor Guard's New Wrinkle

Air Force's flag folding ceremonies lose religious references

Wearing white gloves and crisp, blue uniforms, two Honor Guard members from Nellis Air Force Base carefully folded the U.S. flag while the team's narrator reflected on its history for students and parents who packed the multi-purpose room at Ober Elementary School.

It was May 4 and the occasion was the "Patriotic Performance." The Honor Guard was backed by a sea of second-graders, decked in red, white and blue.

"For more than 200 years, the American flag has been the symbol of our nation's unity," the narrator began. Later, he spoke of the 13 horizontal stripes that "represent the original 13 colonies, while the stars represent the 50 states of the Union.

"The colors of the flag are symbolic as well; red symbolizes hardiness and valor; white signifies purity and innocence; and blue represents vigilance, perseverance and justice," he said.

With that, the airman standing face to face continued to fold Old Glory in a triangular shape until it took on the appearance of a star-studded, tri-cornered hat, reminiscent of the style worn by colonial soldiers.

Although the new, official script is steeped in history and patriotism, an unofficial one that had been read since the 1980s by Air Force honor guards at many retirements and special occasions in Las Vegas and across the nation gave religious meaning to some of the 13 folds.

"The 11th fold, in the eyes of a Hebrew citizen, represents the lower portion of the seal of King David and King Solomon.

"The 12th fold, in the eyes of a Christian citizen, represents an emblem of eternity and glorifies, in their eyes, God the Father, the Son and Holy Ghost," the unofficial script read.

Those types of references have been removed and replaced.

The changeover was needed said Allen Lichtenstein, general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union in Nevada, and the Air Force should be applauded for realizing that any official script should steer clear of religion and instead focus on patriotism and love of country.

References in the old, unofficial script "are problematic and do not belong in any government statement," Lichtenstein said Monday.

Air Force officials last week said they couldn't pinpoint what prompted them to adopt an official script other than to say they realized last year there was no basis for reading a script that attached meaning to the 13 folds of the flag.

In a telephone interview, Capt. Nicolas Diaz, action officer for Air Force services at the Pentagon, said despite the widespread use of the 1980s script, "there never was an official script."

"To help better serve Air Force personnel, the Air Force developed a patriotic script that was based on historical fact," Diaz said.

Capt. Isham Barrett, Air Force action officer on Honor Guard policy, said the new script was developed because reference to the flag in the U.S. code "does not associate anything with any fold of the flag."

"We don't want to force a belief on somebody," he said.

Barrett said the decision to develop a standardized script wasn't prompted by someone complaining about religious connotations. "We can't find anything in our files with regard to complaints," he said.

Nevertheless, Christopher J. Andersen, an Army sergeant and member of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, wrote a letter in 2003, asking the U.S. Air Force Academy to remove the unofficial script from its Web site.

"In order to ensure this religious flag-folding ceremony is not portrayed as an official, government-sponsored flag-folding ceremony, I ask you to remove it from your .gov site," wrote Andersen.

Andersen, who could not be reached last week, noted in his letter that the Air Force Academy removed the old script from its Web site after he complained.

Air Force leaders later set out to develop a script based on history rather than one that could be interpreted as contrary to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."

Combined with the Free Exercise Clause — "or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" — they prohibit endorsement of a national religion or a preference for one over another. They also preclude dominance of religion over nonreligious philosophies, according to a 1994 Supreme Court majority opinion.

The new standardized script based on history was approved by Air Force leaders in July 2005 and first appeared in revised Honor Guard protocol manuals in January.

Prior to that, no script was in the manuals, Diaz said.

"It's particularly interesting the controversy came about as related to the Air Force Academy," Lichtenstein said, noting there have been issues in the past with the academy giving equal footing to minority religions.

"Clearly the flag is a patriotic symbol for all of us and serves in that capacity," Lichtenstein said. "Different people have different beliefs and there are many people who are Muslims or Hindu or are atheists and did not have any script."

Diaz said Air Force researchers could not trace the source of origination of the old, unofficial script. "To our knowledge it was written sometime in the '80s by an anonymous chaplain at the U.S. Air Force Academy."

Rather than fold the flag in silence, he said the new script was written to be read at retirements and special occasions. "We're not telling people what script to use or not to use," Barrett said.

If a person wants a particular script read, Barrett said, he or she can have volunteers read it. If the Honor Guard is sent on official duties, then the script is the one in the revised, 2006 manual.

Barrett said scripts are not read when the flag is folded at funerals. Instead, the act speaks for itself.

"The entire purpose of flag folding is to pay a final tribute," he said.

He noted that last year, Air Force honor guards and flag details participated in nearly 24,000 funerals at the requests of families of veterans and fallen active duty personnel.

The Honor Guard at Nellis Air Force Base consists of 35 team members in the 99th Services Squadron. On Memorial Day, the team dispatched members on eight details. Some days, they are asked to participate in 10 or more events including retirements, funerals, weddings and other ceremonies, according to Senior Airman April Miclat, a native of Oakland, Calif.

To be a team member, she said, is "a big honor."

"You feel things that you've never felt before just handing off the flag to the next of kin, knowing that those are the last memories you're handing to them as they served in the military," she said. "So it's something really big and amazing that we can do. I feel very proud when I do it."

Another member of the Nellis Honor Guard, Airman 1st Class Kenoshia Harris, of Raleigh, N.C., said folding the flag for funerals "takes a lot of practice. It takes a lot of patience. I'm honored to be here to serve my country and to be the last memory for a person," she said.

Senior Airman David Prye of Clarks Summit, Pa., said when he's down on one knee, handing off the flag to the next of kin, he's doing it on behalf of the president of the United States.

"It's a job that we don't take lightly at the Honor Guard," he said. "We train hard in the heat. We'll stand out there in the heat because those service members gave of themselves all those years.

"The least we can do is give an hour of our time in order to give them the proper military send off," Prye said. "And to stand there and hear taps and be near the next of kin ... it almost brings closure that the military is thankful for the service of their loved one."


In July last year, the Air Force began phasing out this unofficial script that had been traditionally read at some flag folding ceremonies. The script attached meaning to each of the 13 folds. Officials say it was written by an anonymous chaplain at the U.S. Air Force Academy in the 1980s.

The flag folding ceremony represents the same religious principles on which our country was originally founded. The portion of the flag denoting honor is the canton of blue containing the stars representing the states our veterans served in uniform. The canton field of blue dresses from left to right and is inverted when draped as a pall on a casket of a veteran who has served our country in uniform.

In the armed forces of the United States, at the ceremony of retreat the flag is lowered, folded in a triangle fold and kept under watch throughout the night as a tribute to our nation's honored dead. The next morning it is brought out and, at the ceremony of reveille, run aloft as a symbol of our belief in the resurrection of the body.

(Wait for the Honor Guard or flag detail to unravel and fold the flag into a quarter fold. Resume reading when Honor Guard is standing ready.)

The first fold of our flag is a symbol of life.

The second fold is a symbol of our belief in the eternal life.

The third fold is made in honor and remembrance of the veteran departing our ranks who gave a portion of life for the defense of our country to attain a peace throughout the world.

The fourth fold represents our weaker nature, for as American citizens trusting in God, it is to him we turn in times of peace as well as in times of war for his divine guidance.

The fifth fold is a tribute to our country, for in the words of Stephen Decatur, "Our country, in dealing with other countries, may she always be right; but it is still our country, right or wrong."

The sixth fold is for where our hearts lie. It is with our heart that we pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

The seventh fold is a tribute to our armed forces, for it is through the armed forces that we protect our country and our flag against all her enemies, whether they be found within or without the boundaries of our republic.

The eighth fold is a tribute to the one who entered in to the valley of the shadow of death, that we might see the light of day, and to honor mother, for whom it flies on Mother's Day.

The ninth fold is a tribute to womanhood; for it has been through their faith, love, loyalty and devotion that the character of the men and women who have made this country great have been molded.

The 10th fold is a tribute to father, for he, too, has given his sons and daughters for the defense of our country since they were first born.

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.

The 12th fold, in the eyes of a Christian citizen, represents an emblem of eternity and glorifies, in their eyes, God the Father, the Son, and Holy Ghost.

The 13th fold, or when the flag is completely folded, the stars are uppermost, reminding us of our national motto, "In God we Trust."

(Wait for the Honor Guard or Flag Detail to inspect the flag. After the inspection, resume reading.)

After the flag is completely folded and tucked in, it takes on the appearance of a cocked hat, ever reminding us of the soldiers who served under General George Washington and the sailors and marines who served under Captain John Paul Jones who were followed by their comrades and shipmates in the Armed Forces of the United States, preserving for us the rights, privileges, and freedoms we enjoy today.


The Air Force revised its Honor Guard manual in January to include this historical script for flag folding ceremonies such as retirements and school presentations.

For more than 200 years, the American flag has been the symbol of our nation's unity, as well as a source of pride and inspiration for millions of citizens.

Born on June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress determined that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternating between seven red and six white; and that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field representing a new constellation.

Between 1777 and 1960, the shape and design of the flag evolved into the flag presented before you today. The 13 horizontal stripes represent the original 13 colonies, while the stars represent the 50 states of the Union. The colors of the flag are symbolic as well; red symbolizes hardiness and valor; white signifies purity and innocence; and blue represents vigilance, perseverance and justice.

Traditionally, a symbol of liberty, the American flag has carried the message of freedom, and inspired Americans, both at home and abroad.

In 1814, Francis Scott Key was so moved at seeing the Stars and Stripes waving after the British shelling of Baltimore's Fort McHenry that he wrote the words to "The Star Spangled Banner."

In 1892, the flag inspired Francis Bellamy to write the "Pledge of Allegiance," our most famous flag salute and patriotic oath.

In July 1969, the American flag was "flown" in space when Neil Armstrong planted it on the surface of the moon.

Today, our flag flies on constellations of Air Force satellites that circle our globe, and on the fin flash of our aircraft in harms way in every corner of the world. Indeed, it flies in the heart of every Airman who serves our great Nation. The sun never sets on our U.S. Air Force, nor on the flag we so proudly cherish.

Since 1776, no generation of Americans has been spared the responsibility of defending freedom. Today's airmen remain committed to preserving the freedom that others won for us, for generations to come.

By displaying the flag and giving it a distinctive fold we show respect to the flag, and express our gratitude to those individuals who fought, and continue to fight for freedom, at home and abroad. Since the dawn of the 20th century, airmen have proudly flown the flag in every major conflict on lands and skies around the world. It is their responsibility — our responsibility — to continue to protect and preserve the rights, privileges and freedoms that we, as Americans, enjoy today.

The United States flag represents who we are. It stands for the freedom we all share and the pride and patriotism we feel for our country. We cherish its legacy, as a beacon of hope to one and all. Long may it wave.

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