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Veterans retire Old Glory

All was quiet as veterans lined up in the chilly evening to give a proper send off to the emblem that served them well during their tours of duty in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard.

The vets placed the frayed, tattered, torn, and discolored flags into barrels of flames at VFW Post 3596's annual flag retirement ceremony in the back parking lot of the post last Tuesday. A few of the dozen civilians in attendance joined in the procession to help. 

One hundred and seventy-six American flags were retired, along with four POW/MIA flags, two Montana flags, two Marine Corps flags, one Army, one Air Force, one Navy, one Coast Guard, and one Confederate flag.

"The American flag, otherwise known as Old Glory, the Stars and Stripes, or the Star-Spangled Banner, represents the land, the people, the government, and the ideals of the citizens of the United States of America," said Ron Kilbury, the post commander, at the start of the ceremony. Sixteen veterans led the line as they placed the ensigns in the fire. 

"Tonight we honor the symbol of our American freedom, the American flag, as we retire her from duty," said Kilbury, a 26-year veteran of the Army and Navy. Kilbury started the ceremony by asking for a moment of silence in memory of those who perished in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor 81 years ago that day. The VFW has held the retirement on Dec. 7 - Pearl Harbor Day - since 2001 when Scoutmaster Joe Sheppard and Troop 46 started the tradition. It was that "Day of Infamy" that prompted the United States to declare war on Japan and enter World War II.

The vets walked up to the barrels, sometimes putting in a single flag and other times placing a handful of the small folded flags. Veterans Bill Beck, Larry Smith, Noel Furniss, Greg Davis, Charles Oeschleger, Jim Gillibrand, and Heather Allen, the post quartermaster and the recently appointed VFW District Commander for northwest Montana, spent nearly an hours inside the VFW earlier that evening folding the flags, which ranged from six inches long to one that was nearly nine feet long.

"The small ones are hard to fold," said Allen, who has coordinated the ceremony the last four years. The flags ranged from slightly discolored to a few that were ripped in so many places it made for tough folding. Gillibrand tried to fold one of the 4X6-inch flags. "I tried eight times, but my hands are too big," said Gillibrand, who served in the Army from 1958 to 1961. Some of the flags were already folded in the traditional triangle when dropped off at the VFW, but a couple had to be refolded so none of the red showed, though for some it was almost impossible.

The post began a new tradition at the ceremony this year with the oldest veteran, Jim Gillibrand, 83, and the youngest veteran, Noah Hathorne, 41, a former Marine, to retire the first two flags. It was the first time for Robyn Largent, a Marine Corps veteran, and Rocky Hart, a Navy vet, to take part in the Plains ceremony. Hart saluted each time before placing a flag into the fire. At the start of the ceremony, they were able to walk up to the barrels and slowly place the retired ensigns, but within a few minutes, the flames were so high and it was so hot, they had to toss them a bit, missing only twice.

During the ceremony, Kilbury explained the purpose behind the proper retirement of the flag, gave a short history of the ensign, and told the crowd of about 30 people that the flag's blue field stands for vigilance, perseverance and justice, and that each stripe represents the first 13 colonies. Kilbury explained that when a flag becomes "worn, torn, faded, or badly soiled," it should be replaced with a new one and the old one should be retired. Although there is no mandatory way to dispose of a flag, the preference is burning, said Kilbury.

"I think it shows respect for the flag," said Don Kunzer, who served in the Army for 28 years. "It's a symbol of the United states. How can you just put it in the trash with all the crap," said the 77-year-old Kunzer, who only missed the Plains ceremony when he was on military deployment. On Friday, Kunzer buried the flag ashes, as he has done for the last 10 years.

This was the second year for 66-year-old Noel Furniss of Thompson Falls. "I thought it was very patriotic and it touched my heart," said Furniss, who served in the Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard, retiring after 35 years as a chief master sergeant in the Air Force in 2009. "It was a very nice ceremony. After I did my second flag, I was thinking about my relatives that served and the people that I served with that were killed," he said.

The VFW also hosted a spaghetti dinner earlier that evening. The dinner was $7 for adults and $5 for children, but free for veterans. Twenty veterans and 13 community members attended, said Angela Muse, who coordinated the dinner with Dave and Janet Brandon and Deb Davis of the post auxiliary.


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