GRAHAM, NC- The United States Flag code states that, once the national flag is in “such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.”
But a Vietnam veteran found a unique way to retire flags worn or torn flags. He creates star patches for other veterans.
“I’ve got a pocket full of them.”
For the past year, Hank Williams has cut star patches to give to veterans. Sitting at a table in his sun room, the veteran made jokes as he carefully cut around the star.
First, he poked fun at this own name, admitting people sometimes raised an eyebrow as they wondered if it was the Hank Williams calling.
“It does get you good restaurant tables sometimes if you call for reservations and they always ask what name shall we put it in and I say ‘Hank Williams and yes, I’m a junior,’” he laughed.
Second, he made fun of his own fear to join the Army after receiving his draft notice.
“I went into the military in 1969 in the height of the Vietnam war,” he said, placing one of the finished stars in a small clear baggie. “And I got my draft notice and so, I went to my grand-father who was on the draft board and I said ‘Grandpa I need your help.’ Of course, he was a World War I vet and my dad was a World War II vet, so he looked at my paper and said, ‘We’re going to miss you son.’”
Williams stayed in Vietnam as a combat engineer for one year. He left the military for 15 years, but went back for 18 more, retiring from the Army in 2004.
Now, he works for NC Works, seeking out employers to hire veterans. And throughout the course of his work or just in his everyday life, he carries the stars in his pockets, searching for veterans.
And when he finds one, “I come out and I say I’ve got something for you and I pull out the star and I say, that’s for your service. And that’s so you’ll never be forgotten.”
He doesn’t use the entire flag, just the blue portion with the stars. And once he’s used what he can, he gives the rest of the flag to the local Veterans of Foreign Wars or American Legion to be disposed of properly.
He estimates, he’s made over 500 patches so far. Williams got the idea, after stopping at a USO on a return flight from Las Vegas in 2016
“They had a basket and they had two of these stars in the basket and I said well, what a unique idea, what a great thing to do with the flags, the flags you can’t fly anymore.”
Williams explained he hates to see a flag disrespected or improperly disposed of.
“Number one they don’t need to be in the landfill,” Williams said and he cut another star out of the flag. “Back in the day, back in 1923 when they came up with the etiquette for burning flags or burying flags, the flags were cloth. Now, they’re synthetic. Which, when you burn those, you emit a toxic gas and they basically melt and I don’t know how dignified that is.”
Many people collect the worn-out flags and give them to Williams. He makes sure to give the first star to the person who donated the flag.
He said many of his offices have picked up the flag hobby and he even has a chapter of the Boy Scouts in Raleigh participating.
It’s his way of continuing to serve, he said, and he plans to make the patches for as long as possible. It’s the best way, he explained, the make sure veterans know someone is always thinking of them.
“Coming back from Vietnam, one at a time, just like these stars, one at a time, we were pretty much forgotten or ostracized,” Williams said, adding another star to the pile he’s already finished. “They shouldn’t be forgotten, in any way, be it in healthcare, employment or anything else.”
Each star comes with a white piece of paper, with a message written in red.
“I am part of our American Flag that has flown over the USA. I can no longer fly,” it reads. “The sun and winds caused me to become tattered and torn. Please carry me a reminder that you are not forgotten.”
Williams said, “A lot of wives, daughters, kids, everything, can’t read this, without crying. My wife included.”