Local Boy Scout troops and elected officials gathered in the H. Lee Dennison building's parking lot Saturday for a flag retirement ceremony. Old or damaged flags were burned in memory of countrymen and loved ones lost.
"Since 9/11, more people are flying flags and they really tatter in the wind, especially the cotton ones," said Gerri Alfano, district commissioner for the Scouts' Benjamin Tallmadge district.
She said there were "easily a thousand flags" to be retired, folded in boxes in the back of a pickup truck before they would be unfurled and lay in the flames.
Boy Scout James Kennedy, whose father died in the 9/11 attacks, said the pledge of allegiance at the ceremony. State senators John Flanagan and Lee Zeldin offered remarks, as well as state assemblyman Michael Fitzpatrick.
Eight flags were ceremoniously saluted and retired in fire pits in remembrance of eight groups of people who either lost their lives on 9/11, in the line of duty or in other violent incidents. Military veterans, police officers, firefighters, court officers, civilians and tradespeople who died on 9/11 were each represented by a flag, as were the 32 victims of the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings and any journalists who have been killed while doing their jobs.
Stephen O'Donnell, committee chairman for Troop 7 in St. James and coordinator of the event, said the number of groups represented at the ceremony has grown over the years.
"The death toll of people that died at the World Trade Center was a microcosm of society, it really was," he said. "There were construction workers, restaurant workers, people eating in the restaurant up at the top of the Trade Center."
O'Donnell said the number of groups represented has increased out of an awareness of how many people have been killed while simply doing their jobs or going to to school. He said his son was a sophomore at Virginia Tech when the shootings occurred and lost two close friends to the tragedy.
"All those kids were just going to class, going about their day, that's all they were doing," he said.
Dirk Smith, CEO of Suffolk County’s Boy Scouts, said flags were gathered from all of the county’s troops. While there were too many to retire in one day, the rest will be retired at separate Scout activities and events.
O'Donnell said these ceremonies, which allow anyone to fill out a card and have a flag retired in a loved one’s memory, can be heavy emotional experiences. He remembered a man showing up in 2002 with a flag he brought in the name of a Vietnam casualty whom O’Donnell believed to be his son.
“The man started to cry as the flag was brought up, and there wasn’t a dry eye there - myself included,” he said.
O’Donnell pointed to the Scouts milling around the parking lot.
“We’ve been in Afghanistan 10 years and there’s no ending on the horizon. All these kids here, all they’ve ever known is this country being at war,” he said. “Maybe this is a way to bring it home to them, the sacrifices made.”