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Small displays of patriotism have profound impact since Sept. 11

Sunday - 9/11/2011, 12:55pm  ET

Houses have been wrapped in flags and buntings to show their support for the country since the Sept. 11 attacks. (WTOP Photo/Greg Otto)

Greg Otto,

WASHINGTON - In the decade since the Sept. 11 attacks, two simple acts have given Americans the power to express patriotism in a quiet yet profound manner.

For the past 10 years, the American flag has engulfed the nation's communities, flying from homes, businesses and roadway overpasses.

Al Ulmer Jr., president of the National Capital Flag Co., can remember lines outside his Alexandria shop wrapping around the block waiting to buy Old Glory in the days following Sept. 11, 2001.

"It was crazy," Ulmer says. "Anything, red, white and blue. Flags, half moon buntings, literally anything red, white and blue."

Ulmer says the people who bought flags after Sept. 11, 2001 continue to fly them as symbol of unity.

"The big theme there was in fact unity. 'We are all one.' Everybody wanted that U.S. flag to show we were supportive of each other."

Ulmer has sold the flag to everyone from individual buyers to Homeland Security offices and U.S. embassies around the world. Since Sept. 11, Ulmer says customers have stayed in touch with his shop on how to keep their flags in tact.

"What 2001 did was get more people flying that first flag. Once they had them, they wanted to keep them looking nice. Once they started fading to the point where they don't look nice, then they would come into replace them."

Whether people are looking for their first U.S. flag or are in the market to replace an old one, Ulmer says he can often see his customers' spirits lift once they enter his shop.

"When customers come in, for some reason, they are always in a good mood when they come into our store. They see all the red, white, and blue and it kind of perks them up."

Service banners are another symbol Ulmer sells. They are the small flags you see in the windows of military families' homes that mark a soldier's time spent in battle.

While not every civilian can display this banner, people have found a succinct way to let service members know their sacrifice is appreciated.

Army Staff Sgt. Bryan Schmehl didn't expect to be deployed anywhere when he signed up for the Pennsylvania National Guard in July 2001.

"When I sat down with my recruiter, I was told that since (the recruiter) had been in the National Guard about 15 years, he had never seen the Pennsylvania National Guard deployed anywhere."

That messaged changed after the attacks.

"Once that happened, it was getting yourself in the mindset of 'Hey, deployment is going to be something that's going to pop up' in my six-year initial enlistment."

Schmehl served in Iraq from 2006 to 2007, and remains an active duty recruiter with the Pennsylvania National Guard.

Since he is in uniform during working hours, he is often seen in public in his battle dress uniforms (BDUs).

Schmehl says he is often approached by civilians who thank him for service.

"Any given time, from one to five, 10 people come up and thank me," he says.

Schmehl says at times the courtesy given goes beyond a simple "thank you."

"Every now and then, you'll be at a Wawa, someone will pick up your coffee or sandwich, and they say 'It's the least we can do for what you do for our country.'"

Schmehl says he doesn't ever expect a display of thanks for his sacrifice, but it is an act that never goes unappreciated.

"It makes you feel like you are doing the right thing," Schmehl says.

"We don't think about (the sacrifices) in the same way as civilians do. It's something we signed up to do, it's something that we knew would have be done at some point in time, especially after 9/11."

A civilian show of gratitude toward service men and women is something that has been part of the American culture since the attacks. As the military conflicts grew over the past decade, the ways in which society honored those serving grew in scale.

One such large-scale display of gratitude happens every Washington Nationals home game. During games, the team holds a "Third Inning Salute," where a minimum of 19 troops and hospital staff from local military hospitals enjoy seats behind home plate and a salute from attending fans, an act that regularly turns into a standing ovation.

"Obviously having the large military community in the Washington, D.C. area, and especially with multiple wars going on at the same time, we felt it was our responsibility to do something to say 'Thank you' to the men and women who fight," says Israel Negron, Nationals senior director of community relations.

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