The flag at the White House flew at half-staff. Then at full-staff. Then at half-staff again. Two days after U.S. Senator John McCain’s death, President Donald Trump balked at extending the gesture. Critics wailed, and Trump ordered the flag to half-staff until McCain’s interment.
The controversy shed light on the complex protocols around the raising of the flag — a powerful set of rituals, steeped in history and tradition. Not every public facility hews to every rule; at public grade schools, for instance, the flag is often raised and lowered by children on safety patrol. But for many institutions, the handling of the flag is a solemn rite.
At the Cary Fire Department in Cary, North Carolina — a growing municipality outside the state capitol in Raleigh — Captain James Garris, a former Army Ranger, leads the department’s honor guard. As an active duty veteran, he understands the flag’s significance in both military and civilian contexts. Garris has a long history with the American flag and its attendant ceremonies and rituals.
For instance, Garris says, the U.S. Flag Code specifies that the flag is only to be touched with hands and arms; it’s not to be carried in another container. “It’s not to be used to hold or cover or transfer anything else. It’s basically to be treated almost as if it’s a living item.”
The flag is to be raised in a continuous brisk motion and the flag bearer is responsible for seeing that the flag unfolds properly and doesn’t touch the ground.
“Once it’s at the top, it’s secured in place,” he says. “In military and some fire department protocols, the flag will be rendered a salute. The guard then exits the platform or area in the same direction from which they approached.”
The flag is only to be touched with hands and arms..it’s not to be used to hold or cover or transfer anything else. It’s to be treated almost as a living item.
The half-staff rules are similarly strict.
According to the U.S. Flag Code, only the sitting president of the United States can order flags at federal facilities to be flown at half-staff. (State governors can also order half-staff protocol on the state level.)
In Cary, each fire station in the city maintains its own flag pole out front. The flag is automatically flown at half-staff on designated public holidays, including Patriot Day (9/11), Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day, and Flag Day.
After the death of a prominent public figure, word comes down through the usual command structure as to when and whether flags should be lowered to half-staff, Garris says.
“Typically, if we have to take them down to half-mast for a presidential order — like for Senator McCain — then we have someone with military experience assigned to the flag pole,” he says. “If not, then the captain will go out and supervise and basically make sure that the flag is properly unfolded, make sure that it doesn’t touch the ground, make sure it’s raised to the correct height and properly secured.”
Garris didn’t talk about the current White House controversy, but his feelings for the flag run deep.
“I’ve done over 160 flag ceremonies,” he says. “I was on the national Honor Guard for the 82nd Airborne, and I’m on the Guard here with the Cary Fire Department. That flag represents more than 200 years of tradition, 200 years of people dying under that flag to give us what we have.”