By Holly McKenna
TROY, New York (Reuters) - Stars cut from worn-out U.S. flags will be handed out on Memorial Day to men and women in the military and veterans as part of a campaign called Stars For Our Troops that recognizes service to country.
Susan Wells, who started the project, collects discarded and damaged U.S. flags and removes the stars. Each one is washed and pressed, then placed in a small bag with a note that reads: "I am part of our American flag that has flown over a home in the U.S.A. I can no longer fly. The sun and winds have caused me to become tattered and torn. Please carry me as a reminder that you are not forgotten."
The stars are distributed at events such as Memorial Day parades and through the group's website at http://www.starsforourtroops.org/.
"When I had a soldier crying on my shoulder and thanking me for remembering his service, I knew it was right," said Wells, of Troy, New York, who works with about a dozen volunteers.
The U.S. Flag Code, part of federal law governing display of the flag, requires that flags be "destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning." Wells said synthetic fabrics, which are used for heavy-duty sewn flags, are more difficult to burn than cotton or other natural materials. Stars For Our Troops is an alternative to disposing of damaged U.S. flags.
"The majority of people appreciate the symbolism of what we are doing and our love for our country and our armed forces," said Wells. "However, some people have questioned whether it is permissible to cut the flag. This debate is what this country is all about."
STARS BY THE THOUSANDS
The project is getting help from Gettysburg Flag Works in East Greenbush, New York, which last year collected 2,787 flags.
"If you multiply that by 50 stars, it is a lot of stars," said Cheryl Rings, the store's marketing director.
Rachel Wallace started sending flags to Wells about two years ago and then started a branch of her own in Lakeway, Texas. She has kept it going from where she now lives in Ringgold, Georgia.
"There are always flags that will be old and worn and need to be retired," Wallace said. "They give new life to something that wouldn't live on."
Donated flags sometimes arrive with letters of explanation. Wells said four flags she recently received had 48 stars, the design before Alaska was granted statehood in 1959. One of them, according to the sender, had flown over Washington, D.C. on December 11, 1941, the day the United States declared war on Germany.
Wells began the project in 2010 when she was laid off from her job at a department store and was looking for volunteer work. She learned about a similar program started by four Florida women in 2005 called the Star Project.
Through groups such as Forgotten Soldiers, Military Mom in Action and the Major Stuart Adam Wolfer Institute, stars are also placed in packages to men and women in the military.
"I even hand them out to soldiers in the grocery store," she said. "I love to see them smile when I give it to them."
(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst, Toni Reinhold)