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Marked and tattered U.S. flags are saved from recycling for a proper retiring

If an American flag is thrown into a recycling bin, it’s eventually plucked from a stream of mixed glass, paper, plastic and metal at Waste Management’s recycling plant near Spokane International Airport.

Waste Management workers, many of them veterans, save the flags in a special bin near the sorting machine. From there, the marked, sometimes torn flags are retired with due ceremony, according to a complex series of rules based on generations of American tradition.

“It bothers me when I see the flag just thrown away because I grew up with a lot of respect for it,” said Tom Young, a manager at Waste Management who served in the U.S. Air Force from 1985 to 2006, in Great Falls.

About once a month, Young loads the flags – about 20 on average – into a bag and drives them to the Veterans of Foreign Wars building at 300 W. Mission Ave.

There, he’s greeted by Sandy Judge and Lea Ann Springer, who hold leadership positions with the organization. Both go out of their way to make sure the American flag is respected with proper procedures for display and retirement.

The rules and customs for proper treatment of the American flag are various and complicated, and Springer carries around four-page flyers detailing its correct treatment, with information including how to salute the flag, where to place it in respect to your front door (always on the right when you exit your house) and so on.

Springer said she sometimes knocks on people’s door and kindly informs them if they’ve made a flag faux pas. “Most of them say, ‘I didn’t know,’ ” she said.

Both Judge and Springer feel some regret when they receive flags that have been tossed into recycling. But they’re happy to be able to recover the American icons.

From the VFW building, the flags are given to Spokane Boy Scout troops, who perform a proper retirement, including folding the flag, burning it while playing taps, letting the flames diminish by themselves, and placing the ashes in a camera-film capsule and labeled. It’s common for Boy Scouts to keep the capsules as keepsakes.

“I know (the flags) are properly being taken care of,” Young said while delivering the flags.

Last week, veteran Randy Colegrove accompanied Young, and they folded the flag according to the proper pattern: twice lengthwise and overlapping triangular folds until only the blue with white stars is visible.

Watching the flag-folding was C.D. Seegars, VFW quartermaster and a veteran who served four tours in the Air Force in Vietnam.

“I fought for this thing,” he said, looking at the flag. “I hate to see someone abuse it.”