What to do with an old or tattered American flag? St. Johns program makes it respectful


For Christopher Benjamin, it all began with a couple of discarded American flags, tossed into a container at a landfill in St. Johns County. He knew that was no way for the flags to end their useful lives.

“I was disturbed that they were there,” he said. “My thought was, this happens because people don’t have an opportunity to bring a flag to an area that’s safe.”

So in 2019 he began the American Flag Rescue Program with the aim of giving St. Johns County residents a respectful — and correct — way of retiring old flags, those that had become faded or tattered, or simply not wanted anymore.

In the beginning, Benjamin went to friends to help. Collection boxes were donated by radio station WSOS. A company named Signs Now made signs for those boxes. He put a few collection boxes out in public and soon found them full of old flags.

The effort quickly became a huge success, bigger than he could have expected: There are now 35 drop boxes in county government buildings, libraries, thrift stores and, he says, every Ace Hardware store in the county.

By last week he and his team of seven volunteers had collected 11,834 American flags.

Among the items in Chris Benjamin's office are meticulously folded small American flags given to him as gifts from veterans. Benjamin, the outreach coordinator of the St. Johns County Solid Waste Division, is founder of the county's American Flag Rescue Program.Among the items in Chris Benjamin's office are meticulously folded small American flags given to him as gifts from veterans. Benjamin, the outreach coordinator of the St. Johns County Solid Waste Division, is founder of the county's American Flag Rescue Program.

Among the items in Chris Benjamin’s office are meticulously folded small American flags given to him as gifts from veterans. Benjamin, the outreach coordinator of the St. Johns County Solid Waste Division, is founder of the county’s American Flag Rescue Program.

It seems there were a lot of people out there who had old flags, but were unsure what to do with them, so they just saved them. Now they know.

“It’s just mushroomed to the point where we’re getting a reaction we never anticipated,” Benjamin said. “I quote ‘Field of Dreams:’ If you build it, they will come.”

Some of the flags, those in good condition, are donated to veterans, clubs and those who would like one.

The others are burned, as prescribed in the American Flag Code, in a monthly ceremony at VFW Post 2391.

Benjamin, who’s approaching 81 years old and is still working, is outreach coordinator of the St. Johns County Solid Waste Division (the county sponsors the American Flag Rescue Program). He’s had a varied career involving government service, travel, zookeeping and writing seven books, and he and his wife run a dog and cat rescue program for animals with medical programs that make them hard to adopt.

U.S. Army veteran Rick McAllister pulls American flags from a bin as he feeds them into the burn barrels at St. Augustine's VFW Post 2391 during a flag retirement ceremony.U.S. Army veteran Rick McAllister pulls American flags from a bin as he feeds them into the burn barrels at St. Augustine's VFW Post 2391 during a flag retirement ceremony.

U.S. Army veteran Rick McAllister pulls American flags from a bin as he feeds them into the burn barrels at St. Augustine’s VFW Post 2391 during a flag retirement ceremony.

He said part of his motivation for the flag rescue program is his father, George Benjamin Jr., a radio operator in the U.S. Army. He was awarded a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions in the Philippines during World War II.

He was 26 when he was killed in December 1944. He had already been sent overseas by the time his son was born in July that year.

“He never saw me, and I never saw him,” Benjamin said.

‘I take my flag very seriously’

Duck Milne, 66, an Army veteran and retired mail carrier of 37 years, volunteers to pick up flags from various collection points in St. Johns County, making a regular circuit in his old Lexus SUV. It’s gotten busy lately, he said.

“It’s amazing how many flags you do pick up, especially this time of year, with Memorial Day and Flag Day and D-Day and, coming up, the Fourth of July,” Milne said. “It’s great that people do the right thing and put them in the drop boxes.”

Duck Milne pulls a tattered American flag from the American Flag Rescue Program bin inside the Cronin Ace Hardware store off County Road 210. Milne, an Army veteran and a retired mail carrier of 37 years makes regular rounds to drop boxes in Northwest St. Johns County.Duck Milne pulls a tattered American flag from the American Flag Rescue Program bin inside the Cronin Ace Hardware store off County Road 210. Milne, an Army veteran and a retired mail carrier of 37 years makes regular rounds to drop boxes in Northwest St. Johns County.

Duck Milne pulls a tattered American flag from the American Flag Rescue Program bin inside the Cronin Ace Hardware store off County Road 210. Milne, an Army veteran and a retired mail carrier of 37 years makes regular rounds to drop boxes in Northwest St. Johns County.

The flags collected in the American Flag Rescue Program are sorted out; the ones still in good condition are saved, as are a few older 48-star flags that show up.

The torn, worn or tattered flags are taken to VFW Post 2391 on U.S. 1. And on the third Saturday of each month, Dan Weir, commander of the post’s honor guard, and his team burn hundreds of flags during what’s called a retirement ceremony, feeding them carefully into fires lit in several sturdy barrels.

On a summer day, such as at the most recent ceremony, the heat can be almost overwhelming. But it’s a solemn duty that must be carried out, Weir said.

At each ceremony, one flag is selected to represent all the others. It’s then raised on a flagpole and saluted.

Christopher Benjamin said that people who leave flags to be disposed of properly sometimes leave notes with them, such as this one.Christopher Benjamin said that people who leave flags to be disposed of properly sometimes leave notes with them, such as this one.

Christopher Benjamin said that people who leave flags to be disposed of properly sometimes leave notes with them, such as this one.

“The others will be retired with dignity and respect, and that flag becomes the last one at the ceremony, lowered down and placed in a barrel,” Weir said.

He’s 64, a Navy veteran. Asked what the flag represents for him, he doesn’t hesitate: “Our freedom, this country that we live in, that we have the right and the freedom to express our opinions and to live the way our forefathers intended, to live free in this country. I take my flag very seriously.”

This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: St. Johns County effort collects American flags for dignified disposal



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