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50 stars, 13 stripes, and two right ways to wear it

We received e-mail recently from a reader asking why the flag on the right sleeve of the Boy Scout uniform shirt differs from the one worn by the U.S. military. Here’s an excerpt:

This has been bothering me for the longest time. The American flag is on the Scout uniform backwards, and I would like to know why we are the only organization around that has it backwards.

This shows a sign of retreat. Are the Boy Scouts of America in retreat? Have you ever seen an American flag fly backwards?

Thanks for the question. In search of an answer, we went to the source: the Boy Scout Handbook. Page 76 of the handbook directly addresses this question. “Following the guidelines of the U.S. Flag Code,” it reads, “[the flag patch] is placed with the blue field to the flag’s own right (to the left, as someone views it).”

The handbook goes on mention the difference in how the U.S. military wears the flag. On military uniforms, the flag faces the opposite direction on the right sleeve. It’s called the reverse-field flag. That’s because, according to Department of the Army regulations, “…it is proper to reverse the design so that the union is at the observer’s right to suggest that the flag is flying in the breeze as the wearer moves forward.”

So on military and some police or fire uniforms, you’ll see the flag facing one way, while on the BSA uniform and in other uses—such as special-edition hats in Major League Baseball—it faces the other way.

Which is right? Both, as long as you’re in line with the regulations or code of the organization responsible for the uniform in question. And the BSA makes it easy for you. The American flag is pre-sewn on all uniform shirts, meaning you’ll always be right—or left.

Have a question about the uniform or anything  else related to Scouting? Send us an e-mail, and we’ll try to find the answer.

49 Comments on 50 stars, 13 stripes, and two right ways to wear it

  1. “such as special-edition hats in Major League Baseball”
    Which are in violation of the US Flag Code.
    “The flag should not be used as part of a costume or athletic uniform, except that a flag patch may be used on the uniform of military personnel, firefighters, police officers, and members of patriotic organizations.”

  2. Thanks for the comment, Dan.
    It’s likely that some people would consider Major League Baseball, an American tradition since the 19th century, to be a patriotic organization.

    • I have to disagree. While ‘patriotic organizations’ is ill-defined, your argument essentially reduces it to ‘organization you are a fan of that occasionally has patriotic/military recognitions’. Baseball has the same argument for being a patriotic organization as any other sporting event.

      • I agree that MLB is not a patriotic organization, especially with so few of the players actually being U.S. citizens. I would, however, allow and encourage the U.S. Olympic and National teams to wear the flag.

        • Baseball is a BUSINESS, not a patriotic organization.

  3. Neil berryman // September 13, 2009 at 9:04 am // Reply

    So as a scout leader is it against BSA regulations if I correct this flag mistake? Sorry, but this IS in correct. Either put it on the left or an advancing flag on the right. Maybe even the front.

    • According to the BSA insignia guide, because the incorrect flag came with the uniform, you are not allowed to modify it. So it is against BSA policy to correctly wear the reverse-field US flag.

      • Guys, if the BSA Handbook says it, that’s good enough for me. The BSA isn’t the military, and as I said in the post above, there’s no “one way” to wear the flag. The only “right way” is the way your organization specifies.

        • “To wear our country’s flag properly, the field of stars is worn closest to your heart. Further, when worn on the sleeve of a military uniform, the flag should appear to be advancing and not retreating.”
          “Since the Flag Rules do not specifically address the positioning of the patch, a decision is left to the discretion of the organization prescribing the wear. Some elect to use the “left” flag on both sleeves.”
          There is technically nothing incorrect with how the BSA requires the flag to be worn, although having the reverse-field flag seems to me to be most respectful. I think the best case scenario is that the left-flag is moved to the left sleeve. Then we wouldn’t be having this argument and everyone would be happy.

        • I hear you.

          Perhaps moving to the left sleeve would be a good solution, but it concerns me that in an instant, millions of Scouts would have the “incorrect” insignia. I’d hate to force Mom or Dad to buy or re-sew a patch if they don’t have to.

        • The BSA has already done something similar to that when they changed the Boy Scout uniform. Now there’s a mix of red and green epaulettes, as well as four or five different styles of uniform shirts. So it’s not like everyone is looking the same right now. Granted, changing the patch layout would be a much bigger change, but after ten years or so of mismatch with having new uniforms with a different layout, most uniforms would be similar again.

    • Mike Miller // June 14, 2013 at 11:33 am // Reply

      They used to be on the front (circa 1980’s)…above the right pocket “BSA” strip.

  4. The military wears their flag with stars in front as they are going into battle and ready to face the problems in front of them. i.e. go back to the old cavalry days when the color-guard rode in, the stars are in front as they are riding into the wind.
    As for the star field in the back. The star field in the doesn’t mean retreat. The star field in that back means that the wearer’s problems have been conquered and they leave their problems behind them.

  5. JustInforming // August 6, 2010 at 1:17 am // Reply

    you are all wrong… The uniforms of the soldiers sent to Iraq are decorated with a reversed American flag. On the one hand this is completely in accord with military protocol, even if being a complete exception to the usual flag code. It appears only on the right arm, and represents the US flag when carried and moving forwards, with the stripes therefore waving backwards behind the pole. On the other hand it conveniently falls in the category of reverse symbolism. Reversed pentagram, cross, dove, etc… which stand for the Satanic principle. Reversals & inversions are elemental symbols in the Luciferian language of the Illuminati.
    The antithesis of Peace is War.
    The antithesis of Good is Evil.
    The anithesis of Love is Hate.
    The antithesis of Christ is Anti-Christ.
    -Do a google “image” search on US uniforms and insignia. You will see that in WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and even the first Gulf War that there was NO REVERSE FLAG PATCH…….ever! When did this change occur? In 2003. After the “War on Terror” was firmly underway.

    • What have you been smoking? The flag always flies with its field forward.

      • I was in the military prior to Sept. 11, and we wore a reverse flag on our right shoulder

        • I agree that the reverse flag does not mean reverse symbolism. The military started wearing the flag on their right sleeves well before 2003 and the Clothing Sales Stores carried both flags as long as I can remember (I entered in 1975). The U.S. flag code allows either flag to be worn on the right sleeve. I simply sewed the ‘reverse’ flag on my uniform because that is the one with which I am comfortable.

      • From what I remember, (being 50 years old), the military used to wear it the way the Scouts do. The reversed field seems to be a somewhat new (new being relative to a 50 year old)…

    • YESSSS!!!
      AGREE
      This Backwards Flag Patch stands for the OPPOSITE of what America represents, LIFE, LIBERTY and Pursuit of Happiness. It is a ANTI-AMERICAN PATCH. Reverse American Flag patches/stickers represent the Opposite Symbolic Meaning!!

      Be a real American and oppose this brainwashed atrocity that has many fooled by using the “blowing in the wind” story, save it for a real flag!! HONOR YOUR COUNTRY and preserve the high standards and morals to which we hold our country’s flag to!

  6. Small nitpick – “In search of an answer, we went to the source” – the source should really be the US Flag code, not a BSA handbook. Especially since the handbook just cites the Flag code. And not everyone in the BSA uses the Boy Scout Handbook.
    And a question – You cited the Boy Scout Handbook in your answer. Is that information found in the other BSA handbooks? Which BSA publications explain details about the flag on the uniform and

    • “Which BSA publications explain details about the flag on the uniform and” … uniform policy in general?

  7. It’s kind of odd that a three year old article showed up on the RSS feed yesterday. I had thought it was a new post with active comments for a while….

    • That is strange. I wonder if it’s because I updated the featured photo at the top of the post.

      -Bryan

  8. We’re not “retreating” – we’re just so good we can run backwards to the front!

  9. Brian – thanks for the post today. I’ll continue to wear the flag proudly, which ever way the BSA places it on the uniform. It’s the flag itself I love, regardless of which way it points.

  10. Gary Wilson // June 14, 2013 at 1:48 pm // Reply

    Settle down, everyone.

    While the flag when displayed on a vehicle (such as a the tail fin of USAF transport) is painted with the union to front to simulate the effect of a flag flying free on a staff affixed to the bumper of a car, the US Flag Code says nothing about it’s orientation on clothing. Thus BSA can wear it in the manner it sees fit.

    While the US Army currently issues “reverse flag patches” to wear on the right shoulder (their left shoulder has the division insignia), that has nothing to do with US Flag code or BSA.

    In fact, the first official use of the flag on uniforms (other than on escape chits) was by NASA and USAF aircrews in the 1970’s to aid identification if one crashed. My flight suit from that era has a conventional US flag patch on the left sleeve where USAF wears it.

    So BSA wearing a of a conventional flag patch on the right shoulder is perfectly OK.

  11. Gary Wilson // June 14, 2013 at 2:14 pm // Reply

    To prove you need to settle down about this, if you really want to become OCD about the US Flag Code, which is really out of date in some regards, you should also:

    “(c) The flag should never be carried flat or horizontally, but always aloft and free.”

    Complain to the Secretary of Defense about soldiers carrying those large Garrison flags horizontally at opening ceremonies.

    “(d) The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery. ”

    Complain to all of your relatives wearing t-shirts with flags on them at your fourth of july picnic or cute girls wearing stars and stripes bikinis. And complain to the US Olympic committee about athletes draping a flag over their shoulders as a cape after winning at the Olympic Games.

    “(i) It should not be embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like, printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard.”

    Insist that your hostess not use those flag paper plates and napkins at her picnic but go to the store and buy plain ones.

    Bottom line. Use some common sense and try to understand the INTENT of someone using the flag before getting all worked up about it.

    • I am SO glad that the flag code is not enforced. The flag belongs to the people. The American people LOVE their flag. We print in on our hats and t-shirts and paper plates and napkins because we LOVE it! Love is not disrespect. When I was called to serve a mission to Venezuela I went out and bought a t-shirt with the Venezuelan flag printed on it. Lots of young Mormon missionaries do. When I wore that shirt in Venezuela, the Venezuelans LOVED it. They can’t buy anything like it in their country because it is considered disrespectful. They can’t sing stylized versions of their national anthem. Such rules take patriotism away from the people. Let the people express their patriotism with all the enthusiasm they can muster. Let freedom ring!

      • While I understand and somewhat agree with you, I wish that the Flag Code was enforced. Especially when idiots burn the flag in protest, which is desecrating it and disrespecting what is stands for. While I see a huge difference with someone wearing a “Flag Pattern” item (shirt, dress, etc.) or having it embroidered on a shirt or coat, or even carrying the flag in a parade respectfully. Burning it crosses the line. Its too bad the courts consider it a form of freedom of speech. Our government should care about people burning our flag as much as they care about people burning a Quran.

        • Jean Krewson // June 14, 2013 at 10:14 pm //

          Actually, Ron–the government in general does care about burning a US flag in protest exactly as much as it cares about people burning a Quran, or a Bible for that matter. While it may not be a palatable action for many, it is a free speech action and is therefore protected. Burning a Quran may get you a headline and it may get you in trouble with your employer, but it will not get you convicted of anything because, at least under Federal law, it’s not a crime.

          Please understand–I’m no advocate of flag burning. I do however stand for free speech. My brother was Navy; sister was Air Force; BIL is still Air Force. They took an oath to protect the Constitution, and our free speech rights. Not the flag.

        • While burning the Ouran may not get you arrested (not yet), unlike burning our flag, you will get all sorts of attention like calls from the President himself trying to get you to change your mind. Not to mention calls for legal action against “Hate speech” of your so called freedom of speech. The flag is a symbol of our country and many have died defending it under that flag. To blow off the desecration of the flag as free speech in the same breath calling it hate speech to draw a cartoon that offends someone is ridiculous! You can not have it both ways. And yes I too am a Vet, as is my Father, Grandfather, his father… going back to the Civil War.

    • Carey Snyder // April 25, 2014 at 2:18 pm // Reply

      AGREED – the purpose is to show respect to the flag, pure and simple. However, as you point out, specifics in the flag code, such as horizintal carry, shoud be adhered to, or change, not by executive order, but by act of congress.

  12. The flag is displayed correctly as far as I’m concerned. The field should be to the left as you face it, unless in battle fatigues. The Military aircraft I used to paint were this way as well. When you looked at the Vertical Stabilizer the field was always to the left. Most uniforms are also this way. Police, Fire, Etc. As the shirt is a solid surface the field should be to the left.

  13. Without wanting to be disrespectful… this discussion is hilarious. Only in the USA! Use the same energy to educate your Scouts to be respectful, not only of your country and its symbols… but mostly of other people´s countries!… The world needs more educated and respectful US citizens keenly aware of diversity.

  14. The flag patch on the BSA uniform is worn properly. So is the flag worn on the uniform of many law enforcement officers, firefighters, emergency medical services and astronauts. Page 76 of the 12th Edition of the Boy Scout Handbook notes the difference between the BSA and the U.S. Army methods of wearing the flag, and that the BSA method is in compliance with the U.S. Flag Code.

    The US Flag Code has no guidance on the wear of the flag patch, nor on the use of flags on vehicles. When the US Flag is depicted on a vehicle, the tradition is to show the standard flag on the left side and the reverse on the right so that it appears to be advancing.

    The BSA started wearing the flag patch on the uniform in 1972, using the standard flag. Cub Scouts initially wore the flag over the right pocket, then it was moved to the right sleeve.

    The US Army wore the standard flag patch on some uniforms during World War II. They began wearing the reverse flag patch during operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Army refers to it as the U.S. flag cloth replica. Other services do not wear the US Flag on uniforms.

    The flag patch on the BSA uniform is worn properly. So is the flag worn on the uniform of many law enforcement officers, firefighters, emergency medical services and astronauts. Page 76 of the 12th Edition of the Boy Scout Handbook notes the difference between the BSA and the U.S. Army methods of wearing the flag, and that the BSA method is in compliance with the U.S. Flag Code.

    The US Flag Code has no guidance on the wear of the flag patch, nor on the use of flags on vehicles. When the US Flag is depicted on a vehicle, the tradition is to show the standard flag on the left side and the reverse on the right so that it appears to be advancing.

    The BSA started wearing the flag patch on the uniform in 1972, using the standard flag. Cub Scouts initially wore the flag over the right pocket, then it was moved to the right sleeve.

    The US Army wore the standard flag patch on some uniforms during World War II. They began wearing the reverse flag patch during operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Army refers to it as the U.S. flag cloth replica. Other services do not wear the US Flag on uniforms.

    • Thanks for the great overview and history. Nicely done. Why someone would rate you down, I have no idea.

  15. The key in all of this is showing respect for the flag and what it stands for. If you want to get really technical. the flag stamps on postage, being on something which is thrown away (the envelope) also violate the flag code.

  16. The BSA justification for the flag on the right shoulder – it’s double-plus good!

  17. James Lehman, Jr. // June 24, 2013 at 12:37 pm // Reply

    Is it a “Flag” or is it a “Patch”?
    If the Flag is to be displayed on a wall , hang it with it’s stars on the flag’s right. So sez the code. In the mean time, remember that it is only a colorful scrap of cloth, until we give it some meaning. Teach your kids the Constitution, the Declaration of Independance, the Gettysburg Address, AND the history of the US flag.
    Which is more important, ultimately, the SYMBOL or the IDEALS it is supposed to remind us of?
    A patch is MOUNTED on a wall of sorts, but it is not a flag, free to float in the wind.
    I have seen old WW2 leather pilot jackets with the flag painted on the back, stars to the flags right. Is that old jacket WRONG, compared to todays military jackets? “advancing into battle” , no, I think some supply officer ordered 5million of them that way and THEN had to come up with a rationale for their design. And it is NOT the US flag! It is green and grey! If putting a true representation of the symbol of the country they are (alledgedly) protecting might make them a better target for enemy fire, then don’t put it on at all.
    And the tiny paper flag on your ice cream sunday might LOOK like a flag, but is it really? I have a small 42 star flag I found in my grandmothers effects after her death. It was obviously important to her, else why save it? I have it in a plastic acid free envelope to look at, and remind me of HER and HER IDEALS.
    But it is, after all, only a colorful scrap of cloth…

    Oh, and as an aside, think about this: You can buy a US flag at any hardware , drug or megastore. Try buying a copy of your STATE’S flag…..

  18. In Civil Air Patrol, we wear the Flag patch on our right shoulder too, but we use the reverse Flag. ( which makes the stars face forward) I just wonder why the BSA doesn’t do the same thing.

  19. Old Scouter // July 18, 2013 at 10:28 am // Reply

    We have conquered this issue in our Pack and Troop. With support from our charted organization (VFW), they supply the reversed flag (made in USA) to our Pack and Troop members. We provide the history to the scouts and parents of why this is appropriate wear of the flag. It is written into our by-laws with our charter organization to wear the flag in accordance with military code. We look to a higher authority than BSA for guidance on wearing of the flag on the right sleeve. Also, we REFUSE to wear an American Flag made in China. Its bad enough that all the scout patches and uniforms are made in China, but our our American Flag??

    • Some things you can change in scouting and some things you can’t. I wonder how legitimate this is with BSA standards.

      BSA is NOT a military organization. And the BSA goes out of its way separate itself from the military. There is a plethora of BSA material stating such. A unit is no more a miliary unit chartered at a VFW than it is a Catholic unit chartered at a Catholic church.

      For your organization to flout a BSA uniform rule makes it appear you don’t want a Boy Scout org but some kind of military organization.

      Providing American made flags is one thing. That’s a personal purchase choice. But changing the BSA uniform is another and I believe outside your Chartered org’s jurisdiction. (but I could be wrong).

      I find this post wanting.

  20. Tennie has some really good answers.

    It is a patch, a replica of the US Flag. If you want to treat it as a real flag, then you need to salute it whenever a scout walks by. You need to properly dispose of the cheap little flags used at banquets. And then there are napkins, plates and the like.

    I keep seeing references to “military code”, but the question is which code? The US Army started this and it is AR 670-1 that mandates the reverse flag. But, the other services don’t have the same regulations.

    The US Air Force wears the standard flag patch on the left sleeve.
    http://www.pacaf.af.mil/shared/media/photodb/photos/2013/08/130626-F-QH302-137.jpg

    And so does the US Marine Corps.
    http://s3images.classcreator.com/18116/001/4032646/2110575.jpg

  21. I’m sorry but US Flag Etiquette is to wear the US Flag on the right shoulder w/ the reverse field. http://www.tioh.hqda.pentagon.mil/FAQs/faqs.aspx
    I am a former Boy Scout and Explorer and I have served in the military. It really burns me that the BSA could overlook such a detail.

    • Not specifically to the right shoulder, it can be worn on both shoulder’s but the field should always face the front of a person (i.e. never be in retreat or using the heart as a guide to which the field faces.

      • If you have no morals and don’t like America then keep sticking backwards flags up all over, keep pissing on your flag. The sense in some people.
        Today I learned that a person will look at a backwards flag patch, sticker or painting of a flag on a vehicle and say it is not backwards but blowing in the wind. What a brain dead way of thinking. America, the only country where you’ll be court-martialed for not wearing your country’s flag backwards. I was in the military, I know the wind story. Don’t get caught in this paradox or catch 22’s, typical gov’t messin with everyone’s heads. Very fascinating to see on the web here.

        • Carey Snyder // May 19, 2014 at 3:23 pm //

          The flag has two sides…your comment indicates, Sean, that if the wind is blowing from right to left as you view the flag, then something is wrong.
          The point in all of this is respect shown to the flag. The flag has been on the uniform that way for years, and simply indicates that it was placed that way w/o considering the flag code. No implication of disrepect is intended that I can see – I’m not hanging out waiting to be offended. While I may think that the proper way is a certain way, I don’t see opposition views as “a brain dead way of thinking” as you said. I may thing that they are wrong, but then anyone has a right to be wrong and not agree with me. What’s the old line, “I’d like to agree with you but then we’d both be wrong!”?

          Cut the name calling, and proof-read your post for coherence – don’t see the “typical gov’t messin with everyone’s heads” here,

  22. The backwards flag on uniforms or motor vehicles, airplanes, trains or any other mode of transportation, no longer fits to serve as a symbol of the United States of America. It is disrespectful and denotes the opposite of liberty and freedom.

  23. Look up symbolism and patch design, don’t change the subject.

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