The U.S. flag has meaning for the men and women of the U.S. military. It is flown over military installations and naval ships domestically and abroad. The flag is worn on U.S. military uniforms and it is draped over the caskets of military veterans who served honorably.
Like other things in the military, there is a lot of folklore surrounding military flag folding. When a U.S. flag is stored or presented to a veteran’s next of kin, there is a belief that the 13 folds represent the original 13 colonies. Unfortunately, this military flag folding belief is more legend than it is fact.
In fact, Title 4, U.S. Code, the legal framework that governs how to display the flag, amongst other things, makes no mention of how the flag is to be folded, much less how many folds there should be and what each fold represents. But proper military flag folding includes 13 folds and while some individuals exercise a little latitude in regards to flag folding, the romanticized meanings of each fold add color and richness to the event, and certainly don’t tarnish the flag in anyway.
Another military flag folding myth is that the triangular-shaped U.S. flag is folded intentionally in such a way so that it that resembles the tri-pointed hat commonly worn by patriots of the American Revolution. Again, Title 4, U.S.C. makes no mention of this historical reference, nor does the code require the flag to be folded accordingly into a triangle.
It should also be noted that the military flag folding etiquette that is such a large part of U.S. military culture is not enforceable although it is codified. Meaning, there is no U.S. law that stipulates that an American flag has to be folded according to military flag folding customs. Military personnel respect the flag and treat it accordingly, following the customs and courtesies of military flag folding etiquette, but many are surprised to learn that there is nothing in federal law that outlines how the flag is to be folded.
One thing that is true is that a person cannot fold a flag alone. Sure, a person can lay it flat on a flat surface (not the ground) and make the traditional folds, but there is more reverence to the flag if it is folded by a military flag folding team. You cannot fold a flag by yourself. There needs to be at least one other person folding with you.
There are several steps to military flag folding.
First, hold the flag around waist height with another person directly across from you and stretch it tautly. The flag should be parallel to the floor.
The next step in military flag folding is to lengthwise fold the bottom half of the flag (the portion of the flag with stripes). The stripes will fold over and cover the blue field of stars.
The third step in military flag folding is to lengthwise fold the flag again. The blue field of the flag should now be visible.
Fourth, fold the stripes corner from the edge to the top flying edge of the flag (towards the blue field). Make a triangle fold.
Continue the military flag folding by making a second fold in the shape of a triangle. Take the pointed end of the flag and fold it inward and then keep folding in triangle folds all the way until you reach the blue field.
The last step of military flag folding is to ensure the blue field is visible on all sides of the triangle. Red and white portions of the flag should be covered by the blue, starred field and neatly tucked into the flag itself so only the blue field and its white stars are visible.
Flags destined for memorial flag cases or shadow boxes are folded in the same, respectful manner described above.
The one thing to remember is that the flag represents a vibrant, robust country and it is the personification of every American. Treat it with dignity and respect.