The Depot

Three Military Flags That Civilians Display & What They Mean


Drive by any veteran’s house and odds are you will see the U.S. flag and likely a military service flag waving proudly from a porch. Since 9/11 there has been a resurgence amongst everyday Americans and they too fly their Old Glory, seemingly in defiance to those who attacked the nation on 9/11.

But there are also those homes that fly military flags that are unique. They are military flags that have special meaning for those who fly them and it is important to know what they mean in order to provide the proper level of respect.

Military flags for those at war

The Blue Star Banner is a small flag with a blue star that normally hangs on the interior of a window. Uniquely American, it doesn’t matter if you’re in Texas, New York, or California, the banners are all the same and they hang quietly, solemnly in house windows.

The Blue Star Banners can have one star or up to five and each blue star represents a loved one serving in the military during time of war. A home with a Blue Star Banner means that family is a Blue Star Family.

A Blue Star Family is the immediate family of a U.S. military member who is serving during war. They are authorized by the U.S. government to hang the Blue Star Banner from their residence for others to see.

The Blue Star Banner, also known as the Blue Star Service Flag, was designed in 1917 by businessman and National Guard officer Capt. Robert L. Queisser. He had two sons serving in World War I and Queisser wanted to show his pride and support.

His original and patented design for the military flags included a solitary blue star to indicate one family member was in military service and in conflict.

According to a U.S. Congressional resolution from 2013, the “…Blue Star Service Flag is the official banner authorized by the Department of Defense for display by families who have members serving in the United States Armed Forces during any period of war or armed hostilities the Nation may be engaged in for the duration of such hostilities.”

Immediate family members are permitted to hang the Blue Star Banner prominently in support of their loved ones. Those people include:

  • Spouses
  • Parents
  • Children
  • Siblings
  • Stepparents
  • Stepchildren, stepsiblings, half-siblings
  • Adopted parents
  • Adopted children and adopted siblings of a U.S. service member.

The Blue Star Banner must have an 8.5-inches by 14 inches white field with at least one blue star, and no more than five, sewn onto a red banner. Some families flew the Blue Star Banner during the Global War on Terror even though their loved ones were not deployed. There is no stipulation that a service member must be deployed in order for a family to display the Blue Star Banner.

Military flags for families who have lost a loved one in war

The Gold Star Banner is displayed by a Gold Star Family. Gold Star Families are a military family which has lost a loved one during war. If a Blue Star Family has a loved one that dies while at war, that blue star becomes a gold star to show that the family’s loved one was killed.

If the family has multiple service members in the ranks, and one dies, then the highest star on the banner becomes gold and the remaining blue stars are aligned underneath the gold star.

The gold star was approved by President Woodrow Wilson in 1918 at the urging of mothers who had family members killed in war. The approval meant that mothers who lost a child in the war could wear a gold star on the traditional black mourning armband. That eventually led to placing a Gold Star on the Blue Star Banner indicating that the service member had died.


In 1971, Mrs. Michael Hoff, the wife of a U.S. military officer listed as missing in action during the Vietnam War, developed the idea for a national flag to remind every American of the U.S. servicemembers whose fates were never accounted for during the war. The black and white image of a gaunt silhouette, a strand of barbed wire and an ominous watchtower was designed by Newt Heisley, a former World War II pilot. This is one of those military flags sometimes also flown at government facilities.

By the end of the Vietnam War, more than 2,500 servicemembers were listed by the Department of Defense as Prisoner of War (POW) or Missing in Action (MIA). In 1979, as families of the missing pressed for full accountability, Congress and the president proclaimed the first National POW/MIA Recognition Day to acknowledge the families’ concerns and symbolize the steadfast resolve of the American people to never forget the men and women who gave up their freedom protecting ours.

Three years later, in 1982, the POW/MIA flag became the only of all other military flags to fly over the White House in Washington, D.C. On Aug. 10, 1990, Congress passed U.S. Public Law 101-355, designating the POW/MIA flag: “The symbol of our Nation’s concern and commitment to resolving as fully as possible the fates of Americans still prisoner, missing and unaccounted for in Southeast Asia.”


Congress designated the third Friday of September as National POW/MIA Recognition Day and ordered prominent display of the POW/MIA flag on this day and several other national observances, including Armed Forces Day, Memorial Day, Flag Day, Independence Day and Veterans Day.

The 1998 Defense Authorization Act (P.L. 105- 85) mandates that on these national observances, POW/MIA military flags be flown over the White House, the U.S. Capitol, the Korean and Vietnam Veterans War Memorials, the offices of the Secretaries of State, Defense and Veterans Affairs, offices of the Director of the Selective Service System, every major military installation (as directed by the Secretary of Defense), every post office and all Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical centers and national cemeteries.

The act also directs VA medical centers to fly the POW/MIA flag on any day on which the flag of the United States is displayed. When displayed from a single flag pole, the POW/MIA flag should fly directly below, and be no larger than, the U.S. flag. If on separate poles, the U.S. flag should always be placed to the right of other flags.

On the six national observances for which Congress has ordered display of POW/ MIA military flags, the flags are flown immediately below or adjacent to the U.S. flag as second in order of precedence.