The American flag means different things to different people. For Ron Sandstead, it’s a symbol of freedom and sacrifice.
Every few months, the American Legion in Destin retires several hundred American flags by burning them in a designated burn barrel. Although burning is popularly believed to be a symbol of disrespect, it is actually the lawful way to do it, when done properly.
According to the United States Flag Code, Title 4, Section 8k, “The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem of display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.”
While working in the community garden behind the Legion one day in 2014, Sandstead looked in the burn barrel and noticed the brass grommets left behind from the flags. Figuring there had to be something he could do with them, he took them home and made a pair of earrings and a pendant.
“I went and showed my wife and she said ‘They’re great! Where’d you get them?'” he said.
Ever since then, Sandstead has made pendants, necklaces and earrings out of the burned grommets and sold them in his wife’s antique shop, Flutterby Antiques on Main Street.
“We’ve been successful at selling quite a few,” he said. “The families that seem to be the most affected by it have military in their background.”
Sandstead’s wife, Michelle, recalls a time she got a call at the store from a mother who had received some of the grommet jewelry for Christmas.
“She worked in Arlington, raising money for veterans and she said ‘I have not taken these off and I won’t take them off’ and when I asked why she said ‘Who wouldn’t want to wear a part of the American flag?’” Michelle said. “That really got me.”
In another instance, a customer bought a pair of earrings for her aunt, whose son had just been killed in Afghanistan. After his memorial ceremony, his mom came in and bought several more pairs for her other family members.
“It means a lot to me to hear these stories,” Ron said. “I like making jewelry that means something and this means something to me."
Making the jewelry out of the grommets has a personal meaning to Sandstead too.
When he served in Vietnam, he saw one of his childhood friends die on his first day in the country trying to save a little girl who was drowning in a river.
“They never found either of them,” Sandstead said. “I always remember him above all others.”
Sandstead has been making jewelry out of silverware and copper wire since 2010, so creating something out of the flag grommets was nothing out of the ordinary for him.
Now, it takes about an hour to make one pair of earrings and he’s able to make 30 or 40 at one time.
His grommet supply never wanes as the Legion continues to collect and retire flags. On June 14, which is Flag Day, the Legion will have a special ceremony as they retire several hundred flags.
“We salute the flag, say a prayer and have a saying we recite,” he said. “It’s a very solemn event.”
“They’ll say things like ‘has this flag served its purpose? Is it prepared for retirement?’ before they burn them,” Michelle added. “I cry every time.”
Once the ceremony is done, Ron and his wife will dig through the ashes to collect the grommets. And out of the ashes, he’ll make a beautiful keepsake to remember those who sacrificed their lives to protect our country.