Carry On

by Randy Stebbins | 11/14/00 6:00am

When I started doing this column I promised myself that I wouldn't write any Army stories. I'm breaking that promise. Look at it this way -- I'm not writing about the Student Life Initiative. Count your blessings.

As a young soldier stationed in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, one of many duties that came my way was the flag detail. Six of my compatriots and I were often assigned to fly the national flag in the morning and recover it at night. This particular detail took place in late autumn, and northern Virginia in November is wet, windy and cold.

It seemed as if it had been raining all month long, but the downpour stopped early in the morning on Thanksgiving Day. Ashen clouds hung low threatening more rain or maybe snow as the temperature dropped close to freezing. On major national holidays the garrison flag measuring 20 feet by 38 feet is drawn from its dark locker and hoisted on flagpoles around the world. That is the flag we carried that day.

When the cannon exploded along with the first note of "Reveille," we struggled to contain the flag as the soldier hoisting the colors raced the music, trying to get the monstrous standard to the top of the flagpole before the bugle call ended. As we marched away from the smoking cannon and the huge, wind tossed flag it began to rain again. Hard.

It rained all day. After a holiday dinner in the mess hall I returned to my room to await retreat at 5:30 that afternoon. The barracks hallway echoed with the measured steps of the soldiers on the detail with me. They were novices practicing the precise movements needed to fold the flag and take it away from the flagpole once they'd completed the ritual. I waited silently in my room, their muffled voices cushioning the harsh slap of rain on the window.

As we clambered into the van that afternoon, a fine mist coated our dress uniforms, covering our gleaming brass insignia and spit-shined shoes, wilting our starched shirts and spotting the black ties neatly four-in-handed about our necks. We rode silently toward the flag along deserted roads.

The mist turned to rain as we formed up on the concrete pad surrounding the flag, marched briskly forward and stopped just in front of the pole. We turned and faced each other, three to a side; the extra man unwound the rope from its cleat on the pole. "To the Colors" played from loudspeakers mounted on the headquarters building. On its final note the detail sergeant ignited the cannon's charge. "Retreat" sounded and the flag started down in measured time with the bugle's renewed cry.

The wind suddenly blasted out of the north, snatching at our clothes and blowing the flag to its full 38-foot length, almost pulling the soldier manning the rope off his feet and ripping the rope through his hands. "Get it," the detail sergeant shouted and we raced to grab the colors before they hit the ground.

Breaking free of any sort of disciplined ceremony, we surrounded the heavy flag, fighting it, the wind and the rain. The wind tore it from our hands, blowing it away from us. We ran under it again, grabbed it and stretched it between us. Our hands went white from the cold and the effort of controlling the great rectangle of heavy, soaking wet rayon. Frigid rain stung our faces and dripped down our necks.

Steeling ourselves against the cold we folded the flag, making precise triangles, working from the stripes to the blue field of stars. Slowly the tri-cornered folds took shape until finally I tucked the white canvas border into the last fold and curled the massive white starred bundle in my arms, crushing it against my chest.

We straggled back to the concrete pad fronting the flagpole, reformed and marched away, our shoes muddied, rain streaming in our eyes, completely exhausted by our efforts. I held the dripping flag in my arms as we drove back to the barracks.

We'd broken ranks and wrecked the nobility of an age-old and disciplined ceremony. But, we didn't fail to do what was needed. The strength and dedication of young soldiers was brought to bear in response to simple, unforeseen events. We got on with the business at hand, the only way we could. We yielded to the storm, recovered our dignity and carried on.

Despite the spectacle and embarrassment of our disputed presidential election, America must get on with the business at hand. One of the candidates must concede so our country may recover its dignity. Strength of character and dedication to the public wheal must return to the consciousness of the nation and to all political parties. Someone must yield so that America can carry on.