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America's military retreat ceremony - honoring the American flag every day

Updated on September 17, 2015
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Military retreat

American military forces have observed the retreat ceremony, a ceremonial end to the military duty day, since the American Revolutionary forces under the command of George Washington. Although the original function of bugle calls and flag-raising and lowering ceremonies to mark the beginning and end of the duty day may be less necessary today, the tradition of marking the end of the day with a demonstration of respect to the flag of our country has been preserved on military bases all around the world.

Military retreat protocol

The military retreat ceremony calls attention to the lowering of the flag at the end of the duty day, paying respect with the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner, our national anthem, usually over a base-wide public address system. The exact time and protocol to be followed varies within the different armed services and specific base directives. If in doubt as to any military installation, some sources for finding that information include the base's public website, honor guard, public affairs or security forces' offices. Some bases may include the playing of the Retreat bugle call and "To the Colors". Some may even include the firing of a cannon.

A common requirement is that with the sounding of retreat and the national anthem, all traffic on the base comes to a stop. All military personnel on foot outside of buildings must stop, come to attention and render proper courtesy to the flag by saluting or placing hand over the heart, depending upon whether in military or civilian attire. Those marching, walking together or in military formation do so under the command of the senior member. All vehicles are expected to come to a complete stop for the duration of the ceremony. When military members in official vehicles stop, either the senior member or all members, depending upon the guidance for that service, base or post, must exit the vehicle, come to attention and render a salute. Some services or installations may require that all military members and civilian Government employees come to a stop, turn off and exit their vehicles, and render proper respect.

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Let's evaluate . . .

While it's nice to talk about what we would do if this or that happened, the ground truth is that we are all already presented with these choices.

When you're at a sporting event, do you connect with the significance of the national anthem, the flag, and this nation it represents? Or are you flagging down the snack vendor, sipping your soda, critiquing the singer? On Memorial Day and Veterans Day, do you take the time to go to the local cemetery or community celebration to recognize and appreciate the meaning of the day? Or is that the only day you have to sleep in and spend with family? When you see the old folks with flags and old military hats in the parade, do you have a sense of appreciation for what brings them there? Have you ever asked them?

Because the truth is, the measure of our patriotism is already there for the world to see. Our country needs its citizens to be true to its ideals, or those ideals will cease to be true for us. We need every citizen to demonstrate enthusiasm for justice, for liberty, for respect of the rule of law, and no, not just by obligatory ceremonial acts. Those sincere moments of appreciation for this great land and what it stands for serve to remind us of our proper focus and priorities - if we let them.

Military retreat ceremonies - honor or inconvenience?

I would love to be able to say that without exception our military, their families, military veterans and retirees, and military employees embrace the opportunity to participate in the military retreat ceremony - but that, sadly, would not be true. Human nature is not absent from our military installations. On any given day you may see people walking briskly between vehicle and building to not "get caught" outside during the playing of the national anthem. You may see drivers continue to drive on their route, apparently oblivious to the moment, perhaps with their windows closed, their music, their air conditioner or heater blower too loud to hear the strains of the national anthem outside - yet incredibly oblivious to the stopped vehicles and attentive personnel rendering the proper courtesies all around them. You might see people gathered inside the foyers of buildings awaiting the conclusion of the song before venturing outside.

On the other hand, one of my fondest memories of my own military service came while activated from air national guard status to serve on active duty at a stateside Air Force base, filling in for younger patriots deployed in support of overseas combat operations. As I left the office one day, I had taken a few steps toward the parking lot when the sound of the national anthem stopped me in my tracks. I placed my briefcase on the ground, faced the flag and saluted. Within seconds, I heard the door open behind me and soon recognized beside me a young captain I worked with, joining me at attention in salute of the flag of the Nation we served until the last strains of the song faded.

Now that young captain could have chosen to remain inside the building, and I would have had no reason to judge his commitment, his integrity or patriotism. He had no military or other obligation to leave the building to take a place beside me. But he chose to, and it meant a lot to me. He honored me, as well as his flag and his country, by making that choice.

Where do you stand when it comes to honoring your flag and your country?

Retired from military service now, these thoughts all came to mind the last time I was on base at 1630 and "got caught" outside at retreat. I got to wondering, what if our entire country did this? Not with any legal obligation to do so, but just one time a day, whether in the morning, at noon, or in the evening, what if we played the national anthem in our communities, and gave to those who appreciate the legacy of this country, and the flag that has so nobly represented it, an opportunity to demonstrate their respect and commitment to what it stands for? What would people do?

A part of me is afraid to do that, because the last thing I would want to see is the national anthem played and ignored. But I'd like to believe that more people than not would take advantage of that opportunity. I'd like to think it would unite us in our shared values that sometimes seem lost in the discourse of differing opinions.

What would you do? Where would you stand? Honor - or inconvenience?

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