Long May She Roll

For nearly 15 years, Marc Valentine has used a rolling symbol of patriotism as part of his effort to display the U.S. flag throughout the world and to teach Americans about proper flag etiquette.

Valentine, 51, drives the National Flag Truck, which he calls “a best kept secret.” Based at the Boston National Historical Park, the truck carries a historic collection of six 300-pound American flags, which are part of the collection of 21 U.S. and foreign flags that comprise the National Flag Exhibit. The flags are stored under guard by the U.S. Navy aboard the U.S.S. Constitution.

The flags, which are owned by the U.S. government, are flown at official affairs of state and at national rededications. In addition, the truck is a major part of Valentine’s efforts to teach about flag etiquette and the national anthem and is used to develop stronger relationships between the rail and trucking industries. Valentine takes the truck and flags to communities across the country at the request of residents.

“It took us 10 years to take the truck to all of the battlefields and cemeteries,” he said.

The specially designed rig has carried the flags to ceremonies in all 50 states and has represented the United States in 34 foreign countries. The truck has attended more than 900 official ceremonies worldwide and led a historic 14,000-mile winter expedition to the Arctic Circle. On June 6, 1994, it became the first American truck to pass under the English Channel through the Channel Tunnel. It also has carried the bodies of more than 200 war dead.

The National Flag Exhibit was created to go to outposts of the United States and the world. The companies and individuals who contribute to its success through their volunteer efforts and financial donations are part of the OutPost Society.

“The whole idea of the program is it travels by the munificence of the American public,” said Valentine.

In 1986, Valentine took a leave of absence from his job as a caseworker with the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services to direct the rededication of the Lincoln figure at Mount Rushmore. When that project ended, he was asked to start a flag etiquette program for the nation. Valentine, who had never before driven a rig, incorporated the Flag Truck into that effort.

The truck made its first official journey during the inauguration of former President Bush, when it carried the flag to Mount Rushmore for the rededication of the Roosevelt figure in 1989. Among its major initiatives: teaching people the importance of removing their hats and placing their hands on their hearts during the national anthem; discouraging people from cheering before the anthem ends; and ensuring that people know about railroad safety.

The project is considered an official private sector initiative. The 34-foot long truck is owned by the U.S. Department of Transportation and is donated, equipped and maintained by interested businesses. Navistar International donated the vehicle in 1988. Valentine returns the truck to the factory each year for maintenance. La-Z-Boy refitted the interior. A Florida company donated and maintains the paint job.

The National Flag Exhibit receives no federal funding and no tax money. The effort operates on about $25,000 per year. Drivers also receive in-kind donations, such as meals, when they travel to events. Donations are limited to $1,000 per individual, organization or business. No one working with the project receives a salary or other benefits.

The DT 466 International has logged more than 1 million miles, 8,000 of them in Australia and 12,000 in left-side driving. All parts are specially made for the truck and are stamped “U.S. Flag Truck.” Uniroyal Goodrich even stamps the sides of the tires. It holds 256 gallons of fuel.

The truck is on the road 300 days a year, and is on-call 24 hours a day worldwide. In addition to official events, organizers receive an average of 80 requests each year. They are able to fulfill about half of those requests.

In 1996, Flag Truck operator Marc Valentine published a 64-page book about this rolling symbol of patriotism.

In one example, The National Flag Truck rolled into Marietta, Ohio, in September 2000 to take part in a bridge dedication. Jim and Sylvi Caporale, who own American Flags and Poles in Marietta, had seen the truck at a meeting of the National Independent Flag Dealers Association.

“It’s really amazing how many people, even flag dealers, are not familiar with the truck,” Jim Caporale said. “We thought it would be great to have the truck come here.

Valentine arrived in town on the Thursday evening before the Saturday morning bridge dedication. That Friday, he and Caporale visited schools, where students were able to see the truck. Each student rang the bell that honors fallen firefighters. Members of the local Masonic lodge brought along George Washington’s sword and apron, both important pieces of the town’s history.

On Saturday, more than 1,000 people were on hand as the 45-by-90 flag was raised over the new bridge. It stood above the rest of the landscape in the town, where the tallest building is less than 10 stories high.

“We had a lot of people crying,” Caporale said. “The raising of the flag and playing of the national anthem and the wind hitting it just right, just leaves you speechless.”

Once the flag was hoisted, the excitement was reminiscent of opening day at Yankee Stadium when the New York Yankees played the Brooklyn Dodgers, Caporale said.

A replacement truck is expected to premiere in August, although the original will still be used for events in the northeastern United States. Valentine was at the Navistar International’s Springfield, Ohio factory when the new truck was assembled.

“We look at this truck as an ambassador of good will to the people of our country and the world,” said Kyle Rose, communications manager for the Springfield operations of Navistar International. “When it goes from place to place, it carries with it all the tradition and good will and honor that our country stands for.”

Valentine is committed to the project, but brushes off praise for his efforts. For him, it is a way of contributing to America.”You serve your country in different ways,” Valentine said.