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Welcome to Flag City

A week before the Fourth of July in 2018, Captains Justin and Marsha Barter arrived at their new appointment in Milford, Mass.

“When I first arrived in town, I was overwhelmed. I would drive around and see flags absolutely everywhere,” recalls Captain Justin Barter. “Wow, did I just stumble upon the most patriotic community in Massachusetts? I thought. My first interaction with this appointment was the flags and it was pretty neat.”

Barter soon learned that “the flags are a part of our community.” He also learned about the “Fly the Flag” fundraising campaign run by the corps, and that the flags actually belonged to The Salvation Army.

“That really blessed me because I said, ‘This community wants to support The Salvation Army and they want to support other folks in the community.’ That was the immediate impression I got from it,” Barter said.

The fundraising campaign started seven years ago under then–Major David Irwin. For just $50 a year, The Salvation Army will dig a small hole in a donor’s front yard, install a sleeve and marker, and place a flag on a 10–foot pole to mark patriotic holidays and observances.

Each year, about 450 flags go up around Milford before Memorial Day and stay up through Flag Day and the Fourth of July. The flags are then taken down but are put back up to mark Labor Day and Sept. 11. They go up for the final time of the year just before Veterans Day in November.

Barter and a small cadre of volunteers install the flags, which take about a week. He rushed to get them done for this year’s Memorial Day.

“I can probably get all of the flags done in three days if I’m pushing it,” Barter says. “Sometimes I go from sunup to sundown. While putting them up, people stop and ask how to install the flags in their yard. I’ve even had people stop by my house because they’ll see the Salvation Army van out front.”

Barter said seeing the flags go up around town was special this year because of COVID–19. The flags seemed to represent a ray of hope in a time of uncertainty.

“There’s a feeling of comfort and normalcy when you see the flags,” Barter said. “People find encouragement at a time when they’re stuck inside, are wearing gloves and a mask, and it looks like something out of an end–times movie. The truth is, when I see people out there just going about their normal lives and stopping to take time to celebrate something we’ve always celebrated, regardless of what’s going on, it just gives me a sense of peace.”

Barter said going around the community to put up flags keeps him connected. People will stop and ask how the campaign is going and about the corps. One man even asked if Barter could conduct his funeral.

“We’re able to share and we’re able to show people God’s love,” he said.

Barter said the corps usually raises $20,000 to $25,000 annually from “Fly the Flag,” but because of COVID–19, this is no ordinary year. The corps regularly puts up 200 flags in a local park, which is closed this year because of the virus.

Meanwhile, many of the local businesses Barter depends on to buy flags are closed and cutting staff due to COVID–19. They simply don’t have the money to donate this time. One business buys 16 flags every year.

“For the most part, when it comes to the flags in front of people’s homes, we still have about the same amount,” Barter said, “but our corporate sponsors are down a little bit from what they were last year.”

However, Barter remains undaunted.

“We’re still shooting for the $20,000 goal,” he said. “Our goal is our goal. We put that in our budget. We said, ‘By God’s grace, we will meet this or God will provide other ways.’ We’re marching on.

“I love to see the community step up to the plate. They want to see other people blessed and taken care of. Folks can go out and buy their own flag for less money and have it permanently as their own flag, but they choose to go through this program because it helps The Salvation Army.”

The Salvation Army has a lot more people to take care of this year. While the corps would typically serve 10 families a week before COVID–19, that number has quadrupled during the pandemic. Barter said Milford is home to a “very diverse” community with immigrants from all over the world, including Honduras, Ecuador, and Brazil.

“The folks here have a real concern for their own community,” Barter said. “I like to think that’s unique to Milford, but I know that’s everywhere. People are concerned about their neighbors and the town that they live in. A big part of why people purchase a flag isn’t just for patriotism or to celebrate the holidays, but because they know it’s going to affect their community in a positive way through The Salvation Army.”

Barter, the son of Major Arthur Barter, a retired Salvation Army officer and a veteran, said the “Fly the Flag” project has become a personal one.

“It reminds me that while I go about the day–to–day business of The Salvation Army—and at times that can feel like an endless grind—I know that it’s impacting people and that people look to it as a source of blessings and a source of help for others in this community,” he said.

“To me, that’s the hands and feet of Jesus and a testimony to His name.”

by Robert Mitchell