IRVINE, Calif. — When Army veteran Shawn Black sent a note of encouragement and a pocket-size American flag to a buddy deployed to Afghanistan, he didn't realize that his gesture would create a nationwide project. His friend wrote back and asked for 100 more flags and letters for other soldiers. When the requests kept coming, Black and his wife, Angelica, a retired Marine, launched Project Prayer Flag.
Since 2002 the organization has distributed more than 220,000 flags to soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places. The small flags are meant to be a reminder of the prayers of millions of Americans and the hope of freedom that the flag represents. They are accompanied by a note of thanks and a bookmark imprinted with a Scripture verse.
"It started from the floor of our living room," Black said as he told how the effort has grown.
Community leaders, families and volunteers help by gathering and packaging "Patriot Packs" that contain an American cloth pocket flag and cards or letters of thanks that will be sent to our troops.
Black said the simple gesture of appreciation for our soldiers' service and acknowledgment of their sacrifice has gotten a warm reception from all quarters. Project Prayer Flag is recognized by the Department of Defense as a member of the "America Supports You" program, which showcases efforts to support American troops and their families. Project Pray Flag will send a flag pack to one Marine or to an entire Army battalion.
"We never turn away a soldier," he said.
The effort continues to grow and has expanded to include "Operation Christmas Care" and "Adopt a Vet" programs that target the needs of unmarried servicemen and women. Volunteers adopt a military veteran and offer spiritual and emotional support throughout the duration of their service.
Black's wife, Angelica, a 26-year Marine Corps veteran who for many years worked in airfield operations, serves as director of the homegrown organization. Between them, the Irvine couple has more than 40 years of military service.
"Word of mouth has just been incredible," she said as she told about the flag pack e-mail requests she receives from service members, family members, chaplains and family support groups.
The mother of two said that many volunteers have no family members in the military but a heartfelt desire to support the troops. She explained that volunteers for Project Prayer Flag are comprised of people from all groups, even some who say they don't support the war, but their heart is to support what the military is doing.
"Nobody wants war," said the Marine Corps veteran. "But you can't support us if you don't support our mission."
Angelica said she can still remember the shameful reception Vietnam war veterans received upon their return home from the battlefield. She said she hopes it is something she will never see again.
"I have a heart for the spouses, as well," she said. "When Shawn went to Iraq I found myself being the spouse that was left behind."
Shawn Black attended Calvary Chapel's School of Ministry and was an intern pastor at Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, Calif. The 41-year-old veteran currently works for the U.S. State Department and volunteers as a chaplain for the Department of Homeland Security.
Wal-Mart, In-N-Out Burger, Hershey's and Tommy's Hamburgers are just a few of the corporate sponsors who have lent their support to Project Prayer Flag. Individuals and groups have donated postage, phone cards, books, sunglasses and other items that are useful to the troops.
Shawn Black told of a restaurant owner who donated hundreds of dollars worth of gift certificates to Marine Corps families.
"We try to use our donations wisely and God does the rest," he said.
"We don't solicit funds—that has never been our style."
Although Project Prayer Flag began in Southern California, people from all over the country have volunteered to package the flags. Help has come from Sunday School classes, Boy Scout troops and community organizations, as well as families and individuals.
Finding a niche
Clif Uyematsu already had a heart for ministering to the military and was involved with an outreach to the Marines at Camp Pendleton when he heard about Project Prayer Flag.
"It was a perfect fit," he said. "I remember the indifference by the general public to the Vietnam Veterans."
Like Angelica Black, he wanted to do something about it.
"I want to show them how appreciative we are of their efforts," Uyematsu said.
The 30-year Air Force veteran, who served in Vietnam, emphasized that military service will have an impact on the future of the young men and women who serve in ways they can't imagine now. He knows all about that. And he doesn't want to miss the opportunity to give back to those who are willing to sacrifice their life for freedom.
"We expect no return from it, but as we serve we are blessed," he said.Action point: Consider making a gift in the name of someone to Project Prayer Flag. For more information, visit projectprayerflag.org.
Published, May 2007