‘In the face of the enemy:’ US flags over Kandahar

Note: This post was originally published to DVIDS on Aug. 27, 2014.

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — When Capt. Allison Anderson returns home to Fort Hood, Texas, from her deployment to Afghanistan sometime this fall, she’ll show up with a neatly folded U.S. flag that flew over the Regional Command-South headquarters compound at Kandahar Airfield. Between now and then, hundreds of such flags will make their way from Kandahar to somewhere in the U.S.

Photo by Tech. Sgt. Joseph Swafford

These flags are souvenirs of America’s longest armed conflict. Some of them were flown on staffs at various sites around KAF, and some from aircraft on missions in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

“The significance for me is huge. These flags will carry a very special meaning,” said Navy Lt. Jorge Velez, an intensive care unit nurse who works at the NATO hospital on KAF. “We are the last rotation in Afghanistan in a combat support role. We are it, so I think it’s great to fly the flag here where OEF started.”

He is not alone. At the RC-South headquarters compound, Staff Sgt. Chris Polsgrove’s team hoists as many as 500 flags in a month at the request of service members.

Anderson, the 1st Cavalry Division pharmacist, wants her colleagues back home to have a memento of her service in Afghanistan. She has flown commemorative flags for her husband and parents already. The Missoula, Montana, native said her fellow medical Soldiers are her Army family, and she wants to share with them a representation of her service in OEF.

“It’s an honor and a privilege to give this to Soldiers who probably won’t get this opportunity again,” said Polsgrove, of Bravo Battery, 1–158th Field Artillery, Oklahoma Army National Guard, who serves as the RC-South headquarters compound commandant. “I think it’s something they can talk about for years to come. They can display it at home and explain to people, ‘I was here.’”

Polsgrove has been deployed to Afghanistan for two months with his Guard unit, whose main responsibility is to guard the RC-South headquarters compound.

At 2 a.m. every night, members of his team lower all three flags — U.S., Afghanistan and NATO — that fly at equal height during the day outside the RC-South headquarters building. Then they begin raising the flags individuals have submitted for a ceremonial flight, one at a time. Each flag is alone atop the staff, and the Soldiers render a salute. When it comes back down, the honor guard folds the flag according to protocol and places it back in its box.

Each flag gets repackaged with a certificate, which reads in part, “So that all shall know, this flag was flown…in the face of the enemy, and bears witness to the strengths of the American people in the rebuilding of Afghanistan and denying a safe haven for terrorists.”

Capt. Simon Claycomb usually signs each certificate. He is the commander of Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division, who inherited the flag program from his unit’s predecessors.

“People will each interpret the flag and certificate differently. Some will want it to help them remember their son or daughter or friend who is serving here. Others might want it as a reminder that freedom isn’t free,” said Claycomb, who is from Shawano, Wisconsin.

Less than a kilometer away, Staff Sgt. Jason Varchulik flies flags too.

A staff assistant to the commander of Kandahar Airfield, Varchulik manages the flag flying from the COMKAF headquarters on his own.

“I don’t have to do it, but I take time out of my schedule because it means a lot to me, and I know it means a lot to those people who want a token of what they did here,” said Varchulik, an Army reservist with the 209th Digital Liaison Detachment based in Wiesbaden, Germany.

Several times a day, Varchulik leaves his office in one of the most modern buildings on KAF and walks 50 yards to one of the most decrepit. It’s known as “TLS,” or “Taliban’s Last Stand, because it was used as a fighting position by Taliban fighters in 2001, when U.S. forces first captured the Kandahar Airport.

The flags he flies have the distinction of having flown over the last known defensive position of the Taliban, Varchulik said.

A stout steel pole protrudes defiantly from the center of the dilapidated, single-story structure, where it appears U.S. ordnance blasted a hole through the roof. But the solid brick-and-stucco building stood, and soon became the headquarters for COMKAF. It now serves as a passenger terminal, through which new arrivals to KAF first pass. The flags that wave over the building welcome Soldiers and civilians alike. Then they, too, will be folded and sent home as souvenirs of OEF.

It was Velez who prompted him to start flying the flags from the TLS when Varchulik, a human resources manager and battle systems manager, arrived in his job. He was aware that someone had flown flags from the COMKAF headquarters before.

Flying the flags was not part of Varchulik’ s official duties, though, so he didn’t think much of it until Velez asked him to fly one at the TLS. Word of mouth did its part, and now he raises about 20 each week, at various times during the day. Some fly overnight.

“It’s pretty significant raising them at the TLS, because that was the last defensive fighting position the Taliban held in Kandahar,” said Varchulik. “You should see the looks on people’s faces when they see where we are flying their flags — they’re very impressed.”

While Old Glory flaps in the breeze day and night at the TLS and RC-South headquarters, other flags are going up in various aircraft that fly continuously over southern Afghanistan.

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Scott Rose takes a flag up during every flight he makes. The UH-60 Black Hawk pilot places the folded flag in the chin bubble of his helicopter, so it “flies” for the duration of the mission.

Flags also go up in OH-58 Kiowas, AH-64 Apaches, and CH-47 Chinooks. From the larger Chinooks, crew members can unfurl them in the back of the aircraft. Given NATO’s undisputed dominance of the air, the flags that fly high above Kandahar are truly “in the face of the enemy.”

Rose, a member of 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment, 16th Combat Aviation Brigade, just sent a flag home to his father-in-law. Before it became a family souvenir, it had gone up with the pilot on every mission he flew — over 300 flight hours.

Collecting flags flown in combat as souvenirs is as old as war itself. Earlier this summer, a flag flown on one of the thousands of Allied naval ships used in the D-Day operation sold for $350,000 at auction, according to an Associated Press story earlier this summer.

During the post-911 conflicts it has become more popular and systematic. Dozens of units flew flags in Iraq specifically to send back to Family members in the U.S. Now, it is common to include a certificate with a commander’s signature, as Varchulik, Polsgrove, and the aviators do.

Brig. Gen. Michael Fantini, who commands the air field in Kandahar, and who signs the certificates Varchulik flies at TLS, said he’s been sending souvenir flags home from overseas operations since 1990. Most of these flags will end up on bookshelves and mantles of friends and Families of those who served here. Velez says the flags he has flown for his wife and kids will become family heirlooms.

Those future heirlooms are increasing in number. In addition to the 500 or so that Polsgrove flies every month, Varchulik adds up to 100. Pilots take flags on the dozens of air missions executed every day, Velez flies flags from the hospital where he works, and flags even go up in remotely-piloted aircraft, or drones.

It is impossible to get an accurate number on just how many flags are “flying in the face of the enemy” here to be presented as a memento back home, but the Kandahar Main Exchange sells around 300 flags a week, according to the floor area manager.

“When I was last here, I intentionally flew 30 flags with me as a passenger on various aircraft,” said Fantini, recalling his last deployment to Afghanistan. He said he gave some to local business operators in Wichita Falls, near where he is stationed.

“The folks that get these flags from a deployment environment are amazed,” he added, “whether they are downtown local businesses or Family members, they have pride in what service members did out here.”

Fantini stressed the idea of pride, both for the service members and the ultimate recipients of the flags. It’s a sentiment that Claycomb echoes.

“How many people back home can say they have a flag that flew on foreign soil in a combat environment, not necessarily in defiance, but in pride and determination of the American cause?” he said.

“Overall I think this program is valuable, almost priceless,” said Claycomb. “It’s not so much about showing the enemy that we’re a threat, but more to show Families back home that we’re still here serving a purpose. For the people who receive them, the flag is a representation of that Soldier or service member, of someone who volunteered to come here and who could possibly make the ultimate sacrifice.”

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