Commentary

March 29, 2012

Outdoor flag ceremonies: do you know what to do?

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U.S. Air Force photo/Maj. Gabe Johnson
Tech. Sgt. Michael Royval, Master Sgt. Vince Muskiet and Master Sgt. Jeff Thornsberry raise the U.S. flag Feb. 27 at the 162nd Fighter Wing at Tucson International Airport while Master Sgt. James Mulcahey salutes. Even if the National Anthem isn't played, Airmen on base are reminded to stop and salute if they see this ceremony occurring on base and drivers are reminded to pull over and stop until it's completed.

When driving or walking by the flag pole on base while the U.S. flag is being raised or lowered, do you know what to do?

I have to admit, this isn’t a question I have considered until today. I, like many here, have been getting it wrong for quite some time. But this morning our security forces squadron – the Airmen who dutifully raise and lower our flag each day – asked me to help remind everyone about proper protocols.

Air Force Instruction 34-1201, Protocol, helps outline the proper actions we all should take. We are asked to stand at attention and salute when the flag is first being raised or lowered, then drop our salute after the flag has been fully raised or lowered. When in civilian clothes, we stand at attention and place our right hands over our hearts.

When operating a vehicle in the immediate area, we are required to pull to side of the road and stop. All occupants should sit quietly at attention until the ceremony is complete. These are actions we should take on sight regardless of whether or not the National Anthem is being played.

In fact, it is the lack of outdoor music at the Guard base at Tucson International Airport that causes confusion about what members of the 162nd Fighter Wing should do. The FW does not yet have the outdoor sound equipment needed to play the National Anthem base wide during retreat like at active duty Air Force Bases. It’s that missing audible drum roll that would normally trigger our ingrained instinct for pausing.

To help our members know when to expect this outdoor ceremony, security forces will begin raising and lowering the flag on a set daily schedule. Reveille will be at 7 a.m. and retreat at 5 p.m. each day. Previously, our flag was raised and lowered due to weather, or was lowered to half-staff during memorial occasions as needed.

Until the base’s outdoor sound equipment is upgraded, we can all remember to render the proper honors when we see this ceremony in action at the northeast corner of our airpark.

This is a very simple, yet powerful, way of showing respect to the flag, and we have all done this while on temporary duty at other installations and of course at nearby Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. It is an honor that reminds me of a personal anecdote from my own career.

As a second lieutenant at my first duty station, Hurlburt Field, Fla., I was driving home one evening when I heard the sound of retreat. Like everyone else, I pulled over and turned off my radio.

From the car in front of me, a captain wearing a flight suit emerged. He put on his flight cap and stood in the middle of the street and rendered a salute toward the sound of music until the final note.

After dropping his salute, he quickly climbed back into his vehicle and drove on about his business.

He obviously didn’t have to get out of his car. Pulling over was more than sufficient. The image of him standing alone in the middle of the road among a line of vehicles stays with me to this day and serves as a reminder that it is a privilege to be present in uniform when we honor the flag.




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