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Photos: Greenport American Legion retires flags by fire in Flag Day ceremony

There’s only one way to respectfully dispose of an American flag.

Greenport’s American Legion’s Burton Potter Post 185 held an American flag disposal ceremony Wednesday evening in observance of Flag Day. Around 75 folded flags, withered or tattered from age or experience, were placed into a burning barrel just outside the post’s front doors. As the flames scorched several feet towards the sky, participants tossed the flags into the fire from a few feet away.

A flag is deemed unserviceable when it befalls the elements, its colors fade and it suffers tears. To safely and honorably retire these flags in their communities, many American Legions throughout the nation host flag disposal ceremonies, which the legion codified in its doctrine in 1937.

“You don’t want it to go to the landfill or something like that, it’s the American flag,” Post 815 commander Jack Martilotta said before a crowd a few dozen strong. “We collect American flags that are no longer in service — they’re torn, they’re tattered, they’re frayed, they’re faded. They’re the colors of the United States of America, they should never look like that. The idea behind burning them … is that it’s the American flag. It doesn’t belong in the trash.”

For many veterans in attendance, this was their first Flag Day flag retirement ceremony.

“I never knew that this [ceremony] existed even though I was in the army for a long time,” said Patt Rudder, a member of the Greenport rotary who recently helped plant 154 American flags at the carousel. “This was kind of a learning experience.”

For the Greenport legion and its commander, who took the reins in 2021, the ceremony is the latest effort to rekindle the nearly extinguished post. Post 185, like many legions around the nation, suffered from a deficiency of young blood. Members and leaders like Mr. Martilotta, 47, are rare, as their time is occupied by one — or often two or more — jobs and their families.

For more than a decade, the legion faded into the background at Greenport, and time-honored traditions — including the Flag Day retirement ceremony — fell by the wayside. But in recent years, the legion’s active members reinvigorated the post and have hosted more community events in their rentable renovated hall, which includes a roller rink and space for live performances.

Wednesday evening, several members of Greenport’s Boy Scout Troop 51 and Southold-Mattituck-Greenport Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps lined up to feed flags to the fire and salute the symbols, which completed their service.

“I think [it’s important to] support them because it teaches [the Scouts] about citizenship,” scout master Peter Peterson said. “One of the big things that Boy Scouts emphasize is preparing young men to be better citizens to be more active in the community.”

Anyone with an American flag no longer fit to fly can drop it in the collection box at the Greenport American Legion at 102 3rd St. in the village. Mr. Martilotta hopes anyone who does will visit the legion on June 14, 2024.

“This will be an annual event, I hope,” he said. “I think it’s important to do American Legion-type things … and I think more people will want to be part of it.”