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Issue 407 – July 29, 2014

These 407 (and counting) columns offer advice to Scouts and Scouters, parents and professional staffers, but sometimes—like now—I defer to others. This is one of those situations where, in response to carious questions about the American flag for which answers can’t be found in the handbook or U.S. Flag Code, I’ve reached out to a friend and fellow Scouter who can provide better insights than I. The question’s about “How to dispose of a flag that’s no longer serviceable?” Dr. Mitch Erickson is a chemist and ecological expert by education and profession, so here goes. Take it away, Mitch!

Dear Andy,

Scouts respect our American flag, most visibly with the opening ceremonies at meetings, campouts, and such. Equally, we need to respect the flag by retiring it appropriately when the solid red-white-and-blue has become a bedraggled pink-gray-and-purple.

Typically, Scouts retire flags in a ceremony involving burning the unserviceable flag (or multiple flags) in a fire. Fires, whether kerosene-or propane-assisted, or (sometimes) “white gas”-assisted fire, are rarely the most efficient or eco-friendly combustion processes for today’s flags. Burning flags generate products of incomplete combustion (“PIC”s)—organic molecules—rather than the preferred and relatively harmless normal combustion results—H2O and CO2—and can range from toxic gases to unfriendly particulate (soot). Advertising their toxicity, many PICs are smelly and eye-irritating.

Most American flags today are nylon, polyester (Dacron), or (less frequently) cotton. Nylon contains nitrogen atoms, which, when combusted, yield particularly noxious PICs, including traces of hydrogen cyanide. Moreover, both nylon and polyester melt rather that ignite, providing the opportunity for burns, especially should someone attempt to poke around, getting a glob of the nasty stuff on a stick or pole. So not only is flag-burning a health and safety hazard; the resulting PICs and soot pollute our environment, to say nothing of the hot, unsightly “blobs” that remain after the fire’s extinguished. Bottom line: Burning flags, while maybe pretty cool to watch, is actually an environmentally hot topic. Ultimately, it’s far from the best way to retire a flag.

So, what can our Scouts do to respectfully retire American flags while simultaneously keeping their lungs clean, their arms unscarred, and our environment less unhealthy?

Some folks say bury our flags, but while cotton will degrade fairly well and relatively speedily, it takes nylon and polyester centuries to do so. Worse, a tri-folded flag of any material is likely to remain intact in its shallow grave for a very, very long time (today’s Scouts’ great-grandchildren could dig these up and they’d still look pretty much like they did when first buried).

Here’s one option that to me seems both respectful and certainly more environmentally friendly: As part of the retirement ceremony, cut the flag(s) into unusable strips and pieces as described at and, after the cutting, place the no-longer-a-flag pieces in a bag and respectfully place that bag in a trash/recycling container. (Our friend “Bryan on Scouting” described this procedure in 2010 [but stopped short of denouncing burning].)

Another option you’ll find online is a “Formal Ceremony of Final Tribute,” in which the flag is, for a final time, tri-folded and presented to the presiding officer (e.g., your Senior Patrol Leader) who offers an appropriate retirement ceremony soliloquy to the audience. In this instance, while the flag remains physically unchanged, it has been ceremonially transitioned (or “decommissioned”) from a “flag” to a “no-longer-a-flag” by the soliloquy, at which point the flag detail (Scouts don’t have “honor guards” or “color guards” because “guards” by definition require weaponry or weapon facsimiles), which detail then marches the folded no-longer-a-flag off the parade field or out of the room and, in private, places it into an opaque bag, which in turn is placed in a trash/recycling container (the opaque bag keeps the no-longer-a-flag out of sight and no one will see it just lying in the trash).

Related to this is the collective retirement of dozens of flags that often occurs on Flag Day (June 14th) and other patriotic occasions. To avoid a ceremony from dragging on for hours, you can retire a single flag that’s designated the proxy for all the other flags being retired that day. (Mitch Erickson, Patriots’ Path Council, NJ)

Thanks, Mitch! And now, here’s a success case history that made my day…
Dear Andy,

This is a follow up with you on a great success story. Back in February, I asked for your advice on how to divide up our ten new first-year Scouts. You suggested that they divide themselves into two patrols, and I took your advice.

One of the patrols has two Scouts (twins) who aren’t able to participate as much as they’d like. They weren’t able to make it to summer camp. But instead of combining those two new-Scout patrols into one of eight for summer camp, we kept each patrol intact. They camped, cooked and cleaned, and did everything as two separate patrols. Each patrol also had a wonderful Troop Guide to help set them on the right path. Here’s how we did it…

On arrival at camp, the Troop Guide demonstrated how to set up their tents, cots, and dining fly; then he left to tend to his own personal gear. When he returned, each patrol had everything set up—albeit a little bit less than perfect. The TG helped them spruce up their tents and made sure the cot ends were secured. Then, at dinner time, he demonstrated how to use camp stoves plus how to wash dishes and clean up after meals. That was Sunday. On Monday, he helped get them started with breakfast, lunch, and dinner. For Tuesday breakfast, he showed up at the edge of their patrol sites and asked if they needed any help. When the new Scouts replied, “Nope, but thanks,” he returned to his own patrol. He never had to go back.

Because these new Scouts had one patrol of five and the other of three (the twins couldn’t be there), they didn’t have many who needed to eat, so cooking and cleanup were fast and easy, and every member of each patrol was on the duty roster for each meal, so nobody complained about having to do more work than someone else. Those two patrols were by far the cleanest and best organized of our troop’s eight patrols in camp! They also had more free time to go to the beaches, ranges, and climbing towers because their patrol sites were spic and span. It was a sight to see!

I’m so happy you encouraged me to stick to my guns about having two patrols for ten new Scouts” I’m truly astounded at the results. I’m also proud of our Troop Guide for his remarkable leadership, and his wise instincts. I consider this to be a nearly perfect execution of the BSA’s Patrol Method. Thanks so much for the advice. We have a happy troop and two happy and competent new Scout patrols! (Greg Sanderson, SM, Northern Star Council, MN)

Readers, don’t you just love it when a Scoutmaster is brave and trusting enough to embrace the Scouting program as it’s written, instead of “inventing” something of his own? I know I sure do!
Dear Andy,

I had a Scout ask for a conference for rank advancement. He hasn’t been showing up for many troop meetings and he’s missed lots of troop activities and camp-outs over the last four months or so. He does have a reason: He’s into school sports in a big way (and he’s very good at them!), and practices and games (pretty much mandatory if he expects to remain on the teams) have often been at the same time as troop meetings and activities. We had a great conversation about his priorities and how our troop has a standard minimum of 60 percent attendance if he wants to be considered an “active” Scout. Yes, we do allow for exceptions, but we agreed that making it to just four meetings in the past seven months—as best we could count (the troop’s Scribe, who keeps track of this, can’t find this Scout’s records)—is way below the troop’s standard; too low for me to feel comfortable granting him a “bye” on this, especially since he still plays these sports outside of their normal seasons. We ended the conference with a mutual understanding that he just can’t consider himself an “active” Scout with this sort of track-record. I get it that sports is an important part of his life and they do, after all, develop beneficial leadership and “team-player” qualities, but he’s still going to need to find a better balance between sports and Scouts if he expects to advance in rank. I also recognize that he’s young, and has lots of years to find his direction, so he should make an effort to attend as many meetings and activities as possible. The conclusion was mutual understanding, and he was okay with the decision I needed to make at the time. But when his mother got wind of this, she immediately showed up at a troop meeting pretty upset. I described the conversation I’d had with her son, but before I’d even finished she stormed out, declaring that, if the decision’s between Scouts or sports, sports wins.

Although I really feel badly about losing a Scout—especially this way—I believe my decision was sound. Sometimes choices in life must be made; none of them is “bad,” but we can’t always have it all. Just like life, if you spread yourself to thin, things will start falling apart, so you have to decide where you truly want to be.

I’m still hoping, of course, that this Scout will continue in his passion for the sports he truly loves, and he’ll still come to as many troop events as possible. Can you share any thoughts on this overall approach? Thanks! (Tom, SM)

I don’t know what rank we’re talking about here, so the best I can do is offer some general insights and observations for you to consider with regard to this Scout and others similar to him who may be coming down the pike (in no particular order)…

“The Wizard of Westwood,” John Wooden, long-time UCLA basketball coach of the winningest team in intercollegiate history, said this about sports: “Sports doesn’t build character; sports reveals character.” This tells us clearly that sports are no substitute for what a young man gets out of Scouting.

If this Scout knew of the troop’s requirements for “active” in advance, then your position on his attendance might prevail; but if this was discussed with him only at the back-end, then it really can’t be applied.

There are no general “active” requirements for Scouting’s first three ranks; so if the Scout completed the stated requirements as written, then “active” can’t be arbitrarily added to the list. If the rank sought is Star or Life, and the Scout was indeed “active” based on up-front knowledge of the four or six months required (per rank, respectively) at the outset, and since then he’s become less than active, he completed the original requirement as written, including satisfactorily completing “tenure in position of responsibility,” which ultimately means that he can’t be penalized at some later date after having initially met the requirement.

Troop meetings are typically in the evening. Sports are generally in the afternoon, after school. So was he indeed active in sports on nights when the troop met, or did he simply ditch coming to the meetings?

Fathers typically better understand situations like the one you’ve described better than mothers, yet the father doesn’t seem to be present in your follow-up conversations. Where is he?

If the rank sought is Star or Life, do you not take into account the pretty significant number of Merit Badge Counselor meetings, plus the work involved in completing the merit badge requirements, as being “active” in the Scouting program?

In my nearly 200 Eagle boards of review, I’ve consistently observed that the only thing these outstanding young men have in common is that they’re “into everything.” I’ve yet to meet an Eagle candidate who was only involved in Scouting, to the exclusion of sports, band, theater, school clubs, religious youth groups, etc. Do we really want to hold back well-rounded Scouts because they’re involved in lots of stuff?

If, indeed, the Scribe can’t find this Scout’s attendance records, can this really be held against the Scout?

In the course of a year, calculated on an hourly basis, Scouting will typically occupy less than 10 percent of all a young man’s time. How do we help him develop his adult character, training him in responsible citizenship, and instill in him the ethic of personal fitness, if we find a way for him to drop out of Scouting by creating the potential for an “either-or” decision?

OK, Andy, so here’s one more thought about this… Let’s say we have a Scout who gets to First Class rank by August, in a troop that has a set attendance policy (of 60%) to be considered “active.” So, from late August through December, he misses most if not all troop meetings and outings. Is he still considered “active,” per the BSA’s second rule, so he can advance in January? And if he’s back into sports again in January, once he’s Star rank, because he made it through the second BSA “active” rule?

This “active” stuff is a bit confusing, and I want to do it right for the Scouts and within the BSA’s intent for youth growth and development. Is the “percentage” approach okay to follow? I know “active” can be individual and often subjective, but isn’t there a down-side to not having a requirement written down, or none at all? And what about a Scout who needs tenure-in-position? How can he do his job if he’s not showing up? (Tom)

Any Scout who is heavily into other activities that literally prevent him from being a contributing member of his patrol and troop is likely to have a serious problem if this persists year-round rather than merely a season or two during the school year. For Star, Life, and Eagle, he not only needs to be “active” but he also needs to hold a position of responsibility…and satisfactorily perform the duties of that position. How he does that, and be absent so frequently, is something that needs to be discussed well in advance. We want the Scout to succeed, but he’s got to have some skin in the game himself. If he’s that busy, but as—let’s say—Webmaster, he can keep the site up and going, post photos and stories, get out broadcast notices, etc., and everything’s kept current, he’s done the job. But if the troop’s website falls on its face, he hasn’t.

It’s a tough call, and the most current BSA GUIDE TO ADVANCEMENT takes considerable time in providing you guidance in situations such as you’ve described. Time for some serious reading!

Happy Scouting!


Have a question? Facing a dilemma? Wondering where to find a BSA policy or guideline? Write to Please include your name and council. (If you’d prefer to be anonymous, if published, let me know and that’s what we’ll do.)

[No. 407 – 7/29/2014 – Copyright © Andy McCommish 2014]


About AskAndy

Andy is a Board Member of the U.S. Scouting Service Project, Inc.

Andy has just received notification by his council Scout Executive that he is to be recognized as a National Distinguished Eagle Scout. He is currently serving as a Unit Commissioner and his council's International Representative. He has previously served in a number of other Scouting roles including Assistant Council Commissioner, Cubmaster, Scoutmaster, Den Leader, and--as a Scout--Patrol Leader, Senior Patrol Leader, and Junior Assistant Scoutmaster. His awards include: Kashafa Iraqi Scouting Service Award, Distinguished Commissioner, Doctor of Commissioner Science, International Scouter Award, District Award of Merit (2), Scoutmaster Award of Merit, Scouter's Key (3), Daniel Carter Beard Masonic Scouter Award, Cliff Dochterman Rotarian Scouter Award, James E. West Fellow (2), Wood Badge & Sea Badge, and Eagle Scout & Explorer Silver Award.

Read Andy's full biography

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