Retired flags find new life in final salute to veterans

By Mike Hixenbaugh and Dianna Cahn
The Virginian-Pilot


(L. Todd Spencer / The Virginian-Pilot)
(L. Todd Spencer / The Virginian-Pilot)

Dave White appeared solemn as he pulled a flag-draped casket from the back of a hearse and slid the wooden box onto a gurney.

Carefully – to show proper respect – he wheeled the casket to the mouth of a roaring hot furnace, then stepped briskly across the dusty concrete floor to a portable CD player in a corner of the room.

White pushed “Play,” straightened his back, and placed his right hand over his heart – then stood motionless as a recording of “Taps” filled the room.

At Sturtevant Funeral Home, White said, no veteran is cremated without proper honors. “He served our country, and that’s the least we could do for him.”

The funeral director had prepared the remains Monday morning, draping a worn 9-foot-by-5-foot cotton banner over the casket of 86-year-old Martin Hertz, a World War II veteran who stayed in the Army long enough to see action in Vietnam.

Hertz’s ashes will be buried later this year at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors, including a horse-drawn caisson and a three-shot volley, attended by his family. But on this day, only White paid tribute – to both the man and the sacred cloth adorning his casket.

White retrieved the flag from a storage closet at the funeral home, but its true origin is a mystery to him. Perhaps it flew for years at a nearby naval base. Or maybe it fluttered high above a used-car dealership.

The funeral director can’t say for sure. Once a tattered American flag arrives, it’s folded, placed in a box and set aside with all the others.

Lori Morgan, Hertz’s daughter, cried last week when a mortician explained the funeral home’s flag donation program. Each veteran is cremated with a donated flag – ensuring that old flags are disposed of properly and that no veteran is cremated without a red, white and blue tribute.

Sturtevant started accepting retired flags a few years ago and is one of a handful of local funeral homes that use them this way.

Lori recalled her father’s flying Old Glory in the front yard every day of her life. He taught her at a young age how to properly display and dispose of a flag – always emphasizing the meaning behind the symbol.

After he died on May 30 in a hospice at the Hampton VA Medical Center, Lori snatched a small flag from a shelf in his room and placed it on his chest.

“He respected and loved his country more than anything, did whatever was asked of him, went wherever he was told to go without so much as a grumble,” Lori said. “And the flag, to him, embodied everything that life was.”

Lori and her mother, Hope Hertz, sat in their Chesapeake home recently and laughed as they told stories about their father and husband.

Hertz was drafted into the Army out of high school in 1945 and sent to Okinawa as the war was winding down.

He went on to serve for 27 years in the Army Signal Corps, retiring as a chief warrant officer after a career that included tours in Korea, Vietnam and the Dominican Republic.

Lori didn’t really know what her father did in the service until she grew up and married a Navy man.

Hertz was a cryptographer and kept his top-secret business close to the chest. Lori recalled vague stories about “clandestine plane rides with a briefcase handcuffed to him,” but little else.

“So I never really knew what he did until I was married and had to hear it from my husband,” in whom her father confided, Lori said.

Hope met her husband in the mid-1950s. She was home from college with her fiance – “not my husband,” she said – and out playing pool at the YMCA.

“He came over and asked very politely if he could play the winner,” Hope said. “And then, when I beat him, he said I was a snob.”

Hope laughed, then leaned forward and imitated her husband’s gruff voice.

“He said, ‘I am going to marry a b—- like you someday.’ And I thought, boy that was really tough.”

Two years later, the couple eloped.

They were married for 57 years, sticking together through numerous deployments and relocations with the military.

“We didn’t divorce because no one wanted custody of the kid,” Hope said, motioning to her daughter.

“I heard that my whole life, too,” Lori said, shaking her head.

Hope smiled: “That was his sense of humor.”

Martin Hertz remained active after retirement. He helped establish a network of senior-citizen social groups throughout Florida and was a leader in the Retired Military Officers Association.

His love for his country never wavered, which is why Lori and her mother were so touched to learn about the funeral home’s flag program.

“It gives me goose bumps,” Hope said.

“It’s spine-tingling,” said Lori.

The family didn’t attend the cremation, choosing to pay their respects later at the military ceremony.

Inside the cremation center on Monday, White wanted to make sure Hertz was shown respect. He pressed “Stop” on the CD player after “Taps” finished, walked over to the flag-draped casket, and pushed it slowly into the furnace.

He closed the door and adjusted the flame. Soon, the flag and the remains would become one – a pile of dust that will eventually find its way to Arlington.

“What better way – if you are supposed to burn a flag to dispose of it – than to burn it with a veteran?” White said.

Lori and Hope agreed.

On the same day that they learned of the flag-donation program, Lori’s husband saw a couple of guys taking down a worn flag at a car wash. The employees didn’t know what to do with it, Lori said, so her husband took it.

They plan to donate that flag to the funeral home – so it can eventually be used to honor another fallen veteran.

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