Flag-draped coffin is symbol of dignity, honor and respect

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A U.S. Army carry team transfers the remains of Specialist Wyatt J. Martin, of Mesa, Ariz., during a dignified transfer Dec. 16, 2014, at Dover Air Force Base. Spc. Martin was assigned to 2nd Squadron, 3rd Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, Fort Hood, Texas. During a dignified transfer, a flag is placed on the transfer case “as a way of providing dignity, honor and respect to our nation’s fallen,” said Capt. Karl Wiest, a spokesman for Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations. (U.S. Air Force photo/Greg L. Davis)

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE — As Flag Day is celebrated across the nation it’s a time for Americans to think about what the Stars and Stripes mean to them.

One of the most poignant and somber places for the flag is draped across the casket of military veterans.

At the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations at Dover Air Force Base, carefully placing a flag on the casket of a fallen service member is an important step to ensure the hero travels with dignity, honor and respect.

“Before arriving and prior to departing AFMAO, a transfer case and casket will be draped with a flag,” explained Capt. Karl Wiest, a spokeman for Mortuary Affairs.

“This is the first element seen once a fallen hero arrives at Dover Air Force Base and the first element the family of the fallen see once a service member arrives at their final resting place.

“As such, we ensure this process is performed with precision and honor.”

When a transfer case arrives at Dover, or a casket departs for its final resting place, each is draped with a cotton 5-by-9.5 feet interment American flag, carefully cleaned and pressed ahead of time.

A two-person team uses a clear rubber “Veteran Flag Band” to hold the flag in place properly, Capt. Wiest said.

“Our team here at AFMAO practices this process constantly to ensure that the fallen are able to travel with the due dignity, honor, and respect,” he said.

According to Capt. Wiest, the flag is draped so that the blue field with the stars is positioned over the heart of the fallen, on the top left shoulder.

The custom began during the Napoleonic wars, he said. The fallen carried from the field of battle on a caisson were covered with a flag as a sign of respect.

“We continue this tradition today as a way of providing dignity, honor and respect to our nation’s fallen,” Capt. Wiest said.

At the funeral, in accordance with the wishes of the fallen service member’s family, the same flag generally is presented to them.

“It is (Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operation’s) mission and privilege to fulfill the nation’s sacred commitment of ensuring dignity, honor and respect to the fallen and care, service and support to their families,” wrote Capt. Wiest, in an email.

“Our total force team stands ready to provide unsurpassed preparation and care for the return of eligible personnel and their loved ones.”

Flag Day, which was established by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916, commemorates the adoption of the flag of the United States on June 14, 1777, by resolution of the Second Continental Congress.

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