MALMSTROM AIR FORCE BASE, Mont.–As the drum roll of the national anthem began on base, my guests were puzzled when I stopped our conversation mid-sentence, turned toward the music and placed my right hand over my heart. We were outdoors. Nearby, traffic on Goddard Drive lurched to a halt.
After the last note faded, I explained that this event occurs every day at 4:30 p.m. as the flag of the United States is lowered for the day at retreat, and raised every morning at 7 a.m. when for reveille. My visitors were curious, even perplexed. Does this happen at every base, they asked, and why do cars have to stop?
I could only reply this was what I was taught is proper behavior when I went through Air Force basic training in 1993, and that I have continued to practice it as a civilian.
As it turns out, there is Air Force written guidance on what to do when the national colors are raised and lowered each day. An excerpt from Air Force Instruction 34-1201, 126.96.36.199, “Protocol” reads:
“All sporting or physical training activities will stop during Reveille and Retreat (if the flag is being raised or lowered) with proper honors shown to the flag. Members of the Armed Forces and veterans who are present, but not in uniform, may render the military salute when outdoors. This is true for hoisting, lowering or passing of the Unites States Flag and the national anthem. All other individuals will stand at attention and place their right hand (with a hat if wearing one) over their heart.”
The section also clearly says that traffic must stop during these moments of each day:
“If in a vehicle, during Reveille or Retreat pull the car to the side of the road and stop. All occupants sit quietly at attention until the last note of To The Color or the national anthem is played (or the flag is fully raised or lowered).”
If reveille or retreat is played as a prelude to the national anthem or “To The Color,” vehicles in motion should stop, according to Air Force Pamphlet 34-1202, 14.10.5, “Guide to Protocol.”
Some might think that since these are written in official Air Force publications, the rules do not apply to civilians. However, AFI 34-1201, 2.7.2, states “dependents or visitors to an Air Force installation are required to show due respect for the flag of the United States. Failure to do so renders them subject to exclusion from the installation.”
Regardless whether there are repercussions for not heeding protocol, it is important to remember that honoring the national flag follows some of our oldest military traditions.
AFPAM 34-1202, 14.10.5 tells us that “in 1812, Reveille was a drum call but as time passed it came to mark when the flag was raised in the morning and honors paid to it.” During the 1800s, every activity of a soldier’s day was strictly regulated by drum and fife or bugle calls. Soldiers serving in the Civil War and on the post-war frontier including Montana learned at least a dozen separate calls that signaled when to wake up; fall in for roll call, sick call and inspections; eat their meals; care for animals; report to guard mount, work details and dress parades; and turn in for the night. Music was so important to the good order of a unit that U.S. Army regulations of 1865 allowed for special enlistments of qualified musicians, and regimental band leaders were considered equal to second lieutenants.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” became our official national anthem in 1931 by a congressional resolution signed by President Herbert Hoover. The impetus, however, began in 1892 on Fort Meade’s parade ground near Sturgis, South Dakota, when post commander Col. Caleb Carlton discussed with his wife the need for “a National Air.” The colonel concluded it should be “The Star-Spangled Banner,” whereupon he required it to be played at retreat and at the close of parades and concerts on the post.
“In addition to this I tried to enforce respect for our national flag by having every one rise and remove their hats when the colors passed them,” Carlton wrote in 1914. “Not long afterward I had an interview on the subject with the Secretary of War, Daniel E. Lamont, and my impression is that it was but a few months later that he issued an order requiring ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ to be played at every Army post every evening at retreat.”
By World War II, Army regulations governing outdoor honors for “To The Color” and the national anthem specified that all personnel mounted on animals would halt and render a salute while mounted; and that vehicles in motion were to be brought to a halt. Furthermore, “persons riding in a passenger car or motorcycle will dismount and salute.” Individuals in charge of other types of military vehicles were to dismount and render a hand salute while other occupants remained seated at attention. Tank and armored car commanders were to salute from their vehicles. It was not sufficient for the commander of an entire convoy to salute, regulations in 1943 advised, though this last item seems to have been rescinded by 1946 when War Department Field Manual 22-5, “Leadership, Courtesy and Drill,” was published.
This brief history of protocol for “To The Colors” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” only reminds us that proper courtesies are deeply rooted in military tradition.
More poignant — and what I reflect upon when I’m standing at attention as the music plays — are the sacrifices of those who came before us. Francis Scott Key penned the words for “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 1814 while watching American forces absorb the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor, Maryland. During the Civil War, one of the highest honors a soldier could receive was selection to bear the national colors and guide his regiment in battle. The color guard became a natural target for enemy fire, and consequently a disproportionate number of Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded to men who protected the flag with their lives.
I think of the soldiers in blue who held the field at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and clambered over the walls at Battery Wagner, South Carolina, to preserve the Union and crush slavery. I think of the Marines who fought their way up Mount Suribachi in 1945 to plant the U.S. flag over Iwo Jima, even as the killing and dying continued around them. I think of the Airmen shot down over Vietnam who were held prisoner in the infamous ‘Hanoi Hilton’ and secretly fabricated an American flag to rally their spirits, despite the certainty of torture and deprivations if discovered.
These few minutes to pause as the flag is raised or lowered each day are, to me, a moment to introspect who we are as Airmen and as a people.
Stopping to honor the flag is but a small token of our citizenship. It is also a courtesy we should all feel proud to offer.