Oct 31, 2017

Georgetown’s Flag Display to Honor Heroes Amid Debate on Symbols

Reporting Texas

Jeanne McClellan organized the Field of Honor of Central Texas for the first time in Georgetown near Austin. She feels a deep personal connection to the military services. Rachel Weinheimer/Reporting Texas

GEORGETOWN— Jeanne McClellan was born in Mexico and became a U.S. citizen as a child, when her family moved to the country. As a first-generation American, she has a special appreciation for the U.S. flag. “Our flag is a magnificent symbol of everything this country stands for: unprecedented freedoms and unparalleled opportunity,” McClellan said.

As the wife of an Air Force veteran and the mother of a daughter in the Navy, she understands the sacrifices that service members make for the country. The Georgetown resident wanted to find a unique way to honor members of the military.

McClellan, 64, is the spearhead behind the Field of Honor, a display of 1,400 American flags at Georgetown’s San Gabriel Park from Nov. 5 through 12. This event honors service members, first responders and local heroes.

In its first year, the Field of Honor is the focal point of a week of events. It will kick off with the playing of Taps and a 21-gun salute. The Field of Honor and the Patriots Ball, held that same week, are the two largest fundraisers. The money raised from flag and ticket sales will go toward local causes.

McClellan got the idea to bring the Field of Honor to Georgetown when she lived in Murietta, California, where the local Rotary Club sponsored a Field of Honor for nine years in a row. She proposed the idea to the Georgetown Rotary after she and her husband moved to the city in 2013.

Last November, McClellan attended the Field of Honor in Murrieta to learn how to run the event in Georgetown. When she walked through the field of flags, she saw a young boy and his mother at one of the flags. The woman was crying as she placed a picture of a soldier at the base of the flag.

“It’s imperative for me to ensure that families of veterans and those currently serving have a place to honor their loved ones who selflessly serve this nation,” McClellan said.

Georgetown’s Field of Honor comes at a time when the country is debating the meaning of the flag. At NFL games, many players have been kneeling while the flag is displayed and the National Anthem is played, to protest the criminal justice system’s treatment of African-Americans.

But to many Americans, including President Trump, the flag represents respect for the military, not just the country, and have criticized the players for their actions.

“I don’t understand the claim that kneeling equals disrespect of flag and of nation,” said David G. Winter, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Michigan. He is the co-author of “Sowing Patriotism, Reaping Nationalism? Consequences of Exposure to the American Flag” an article in Political Psychology, a professional journal, that explores the practices surrounding the flag and its implications. He said the flag symbolizes different things for people. “I think it’s silly to play the anthem before sports, because it becomes an empty ritual,” said Winter.

John Hartvigsen, program advisor at the Colonial Flag Foundation, as well as president of the North American Vexillological Association, which is focused on the study of flags said, “There is always controversy with the flag, like with the NFL. I hope that the flag represents what we share, not what divides us, but the great thing about our nation is what we can decide that for ourselves”.

At the Georgetown event, anyone can purchase a flag for $40 in honor of someone they consider a hero – a soldier killed in battle, a nurse who works at a hospital, a police officer. They can take the flags home at the end of the week. Over 800 flags have been sold so far and the sales are expected to increase during the week.

The Field of Honor concept was born 15 years ago. Paul Swenson, owner of Colonial Flag in Sandy, Utah, wanted to pay tribute to the people who had lost their lives on Sept. 11, 2001. With the first anniversary only a few weeks away, he turned to what he knew best: the American flag.

In September 2002, Colonial Flag installed 3,000 flags in a large field in Sandy. The impromptu memorial drew hundreds of people. “People started asking if they could buy the flags when the memorial was take down and we said no. That was never the point,” said Sawn Swenson, Paul’s sister.

Realizing the event could help charities, Paul Swenson changed his mind and decided to sell the flags. After he packed up the memorial, he gave the profits from the flag sales to a burn unit in New Jersey and other hospitals in honor of the victims.

In 2003, Colonial Flag created the Colonial Flag Foundation, a nonprofit that helps local organizations raise money for their communities with flag events. Sawn Swenson is the national director of the foundation. The foundation said it has helped cities across the country host hundreds the events.

For Sawn, the flag represents the many Americans who have died for the United States. “The flag is a reminder to me to always be worthy of their sacrifice. I know they cherished the flag so dearly. They carry pieces of the flag when they are in battle,” she said.

The foundation provides a platform for fundraising for local community organizations. Organizations such as the Georgetown Rotary pay a licensing fee to the foundation, which provides a consultant, instructional and media materials and flag posting kits.

In Georgetown, the proceeds from flag sales will be used to provide service dogs to veterans in need as well as bulletproof tactical vests for police officers and firefighters in Georgetown. Also, local businesses have contributed money as sponsors. For example Don Hewlett Chevrolet and SportClips both gave $25,000.

“We are hoping to raise about $150,000,” co-chair David Kellerman said.