Thursday, June 9, 2011
On a cloudy morning in Pacific Grove, three fifth-grade boys, one holding a carefully folded American flag, make their way out of a Monterey Charter School classroom and head for the pole in front of the school.
The flag-bearer unfolds it carefully as his friends fasten the brass clips to the grommets on the banner’s corners. They work in tandem to unwind and haul the halyard, eyes skyward as they raise Old Glory into the breeze.
It is a scene that has played out every school day since early January.
The boy carrying the flag is 11-year-old Vincent Schweitzer. He started the ceremony after being gifted a flag by a member of Patriot Guard Riders – a group of volunteers who ride along with funeral processions on motorcycles, ensuring soldier memorials are not disturbed by protests or harassment – at the burial of his uncle, then-45-year-old Staff Sgt. Vincent Wayne Ashlock.
Ashlock began his military career in the Army at the age of 18, and after finishing his stint in the service, returned to civilian life. Following 9/11, he reenlisted with the Army National Guard, according to his mother, Margot Stengel. He trained with NATO and Ugandan forces, completed a year-long tour in Iraq and again re-enlisted – eventually serving in Afghanistan, where he worked to clear the roads of improvised explosive devices. A severe IED explosion in late 2010 left him with severe neck pain in the months just before his death, and he passed in the war-torn Khost Province near Kabul in December. Despite his medical complications, the Pentagon considers Ashlock’s a “non-combat” death, attributing his passing to heart failure.
Vincent was close with his uncle. Ashlock would take him to go-cart and dirt bike races and the boy joined Stengel when she dropped Ashlock off for training. On one such trip to Dublin, Vincent clutched fast to his uncle’s leg, begging him, “Please don’t go to war.”
Ashlock smiled and bent down, hugged the boy and explained, “No, little dude, I’m just training.”
Little Vincent’s mother, Dawn Doss, says her son took the death of her brother very hard. As a way of coping, he taught himself flag etiquette and began raising the flag off of the family’s porch daily, careful to take it down at night.
“He’s like the flag patrol,” Doss explains. “He learned how to fold it properly, and he is very cautious to not let it touch the ground.”
The boy went so far as to say if he had $1 million, he would buy everyone a flag so they could put them out in front of their houses. On second thought, however, he surmised the federal government might be a better flag distribution agent.
“I know everything that goes on the flag,” Vincent says proudly, explaining what the different elements stand for: The 50 white stars represent the states in the union. The blue background they are spread across, perseverance and justice. The 13 red and white alternating stripes are a nod to the original colonies – red symbolizing valor and white representing purity.
One day Vincent decided to take his small memorial further. Noticing an empty flag pole in front of his school, he decided to have a talk with administration. School officials saw no reason not to let the boy fly his flag.
“Nobody really noticed there was a pole,” Vincent says. “But I did.”
Although he admits the pole and its halyard aren’t the easiest to work with – and that for weeks he brought his own flag despite fear it would get lost or stolen – he never let the memorial fall by the wayside. This Tuesday, June 14 – Flag Day – will be no different.
As every kid in class raised a hand when asked for helpers, Vincent used a Popsicle-stick-and-chart system to rotate them through the ceremony. The administration eventually tracked down a flag in storage, meaning Vincent no longer had to worry about losing his keepsake flag. Recently, the Monterey Fire Department donated a California flag to the school, giving Vincent and his fellow students a properly outfitted flagpole.
“We’re really proud that he understands what the flag means,” Doss says, giving her brother the credit for teaching Vincent about patriotism.
Despite his age, he has witnessed personally the price of America’s wars. And he has a very mature understanding of the freedom it represents – he says those who picket funerals of lost soldiers and protest on street corners are part of why his uncle gave his life.
“They do it because they want to,” he says, “not because they are forced to.”