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Star Spangled Comfort: Wilford Hall displays Hero's Highway Flag

By Matthew Scales | 59th Medical Wing Historian | Jan. 5, 2012

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas — 59th Medical Wing leaders conducted a ceremony at Wilford Hall Ambulatory Surgical Center Jan. 5, 2012, to officially hang a Hero's Highway Flag.

And the Star-Spangled Banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

These words, the final two lines of the last verse of our National Anthem, were penned by Francis Scott Key after a long night of Battle. On the night of September 13, 1814, Key was detained aboard the British ship HMS Minden where he watched as British forces launched an attack upon Fort McHenry in Baltimore during the War of 1812. When he looked towards the American Fort the next morning and saw the flag of his country still flying as it had the night before, he was inspired to write a poem which later became the National Anthem of the United States.

In June 2006 Capt. Scott Miller, Master Sgt. Brian Briggs, and Staff Sgt. William Murphy, members of the 332nd Expeditionary Medical Group at Balad Air Base, Iraq, decided to name a tent-covered area at the hospital there. The area had been used since November 2004 to shelter wounded service members as they arrived at and departed from the Air Force theater hospital. They named the area "Hero's Highway" to honor the remarkable individuals they were treating every day.

Five months later, Maj. Richard Hayes, officer-in-charge of the 332nd EMDG Patient Administration Division, decided to add an American flag to Hero's Highway. Hayes' responsibilities included the management of medical evacuation operations. While working in this capacity, he felt the presence of the American flag would reassure American soldiers, sailors, Airmen and Marines that they were in good hands and would be returning home very soon.

With this idea in mind, Hayes asked his parents to help him find a suitable flag. After a week of searching, his family found a flag that a flag company agreed to donate to the hospital. This first "Hero's Highway" flag was put in place on Nov. 28, 2006.

Since the first flag had been used before arriving in Iraq, 332nd EMDG leadership purchased a second flag that replaced the first one on Jan. 22, 2007. The first flag is now on display at the Aeromedical Staging Facility at Andrews Air Force Base, Md.

In January 2008, the 332nd EMDG replaced the American flag again. The group mounted a third flag on the hospital tent's ceiling. This flag was donated by cadets from the Marion Military Institute in Marion, Ala., and was delivered to Iraq by country music singer Darryl Worley. The second flag was folded and placed in a shadow box where it was displayed at the entrance of the hospital in Balad until it was shipped to Wilford Hall, arriving on July 25, 2011.

On Sept. 1, 2010 officials decided to retire yet another flag that had brought comfort to so many individuals for almost three years. The third flag was sent to Wilford Hall where it will be loaned to the Defense Health Headquarters in Arlington, Va. This third flag holds the significance of being the last flag to be displayed at the Air Force Theater Hospital in Balad during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Finally, on Sept. 1, 2011, the fourth and final Heroes' Highway flag was retired in a ceremony held by members of the 332nd EMDG. The tent that had housed the flags for more than four years and had seen countless service members pass through it for almost seven years was also taken down. The fourth flag and the tent will be displayed at the Aviation Museum, Robins AFB, Ga.

In 1814 Francis Scott Key awoke to see a giant American flag flying proudly over Fort McHenry, Md. The site gave him hope and reassured him that the 200 years later American soldiers, sailors, Airmen and Marines could feel the same comfort Key felt as they too, after experiencing hard fought battles, saw that the "Star Spangled Banner" did in fact still wave as they left the Joint Theater Hospital at Balad Air Base and returned to the country where, because of sacrifices they and their fellow service members made, they would once again be in the "land of the free and the home of the brave."