Matthew Wrobel literally creates beauty from the ashes.
His story begins when, driving around Meridian as a city inspector, he felt distressed and disappointed by seeing flags in garbage cans.
“If you read the flag code it says the flag is a living symbol of our country. If it’s a living symbol it deserves more respect,” he said.
And a living symbol should lie at rest in a sacred area — a cemetery, he thought.
Wrobel started working with cemeteries to dispose of the ashes of burned flags. As the word got out, more and more people and organizations began sending Wrobel their used, tattered, damaged and stained flags to be respectfully retired.
“It’s a passion. I truly believe in it. Almost every flag in the valley comes to me,” he said.
He even had 51 flags sent from Arlington National Cemetery.
Then Wrobel had another brilliant idea. He decided to make something from the grommets — the small metal rings that allow flags to be hoisted up. He cut an average of two grommets out of each flag in an assortment of steel, brass, stainless steel or aluminum before burning them.
At first he thought he would create an urn where his own ashes could be wrapped in eternal glory when he died. But God had a better idea, he said.
“It made a ting noise, so I decided it should be a bell,” he said.
The grommets rapidly grew to a collection of 3,000 and were sorted, with about 1,500 brass grommets reserved for the bell. The steel, stainless steel and aluminum ones were recycled.
“Everything’s recycled. We don’t waste anything,” he said.
As post commander for Meridian Post 113, Wrobel designed a bell for the American Legion’s state convention to commemorate 100 years. He hired someone to cast the bell.
But when he went to pick up the bell, there were two.
“You only charged me for one,” he told them.
They told him yes, they did. He said they told him “We got together and decided that with all the effort to burn the flags and collect the brass, we wanted you to have one too.’”
Wrobel was touched. The bell sits in his living room, near a framed flag received from Arlington National Cemetery that was sent with just a broken stick.
“It keeps me inspired to keep doing what I’m doing,” he said. “And that something so beautiful can rise from the ashes.”
It’s a five-inch base, by six-inch tall, ceremony bell for meetings, he said.
“It all came together for the 100 year convention. It’s a neat thing,” he says.
Wrobel continues to work hard for the cause he believes in, spreading the word to properly dispose of the flag that he loved and that he fought for.
“It’s the most recognizable symbol on the planet,” he said. “You can go anywhere and they know what the U.S. flag is. It represents freedom ... sacrifice. Millions of people have died for that symbol.”
He said he served under the flag. When service members take an oath, he said they do it under a flag.
“I love my flag and I didn’t think it was proper to throw it away. Not even the ashes,” he said.
Wrobel just purchased a powerful incinerator and recently burned 441 flags in three weeks in his backyard. He said the new incinerator burns them “way more efficiently.” In the burning process, Wrobel first clips a piece for his ceremonial portion. From burning, he gets a handful of powdery ash that he takes to cemeteries. He spreads the remainder of the ash in beautiful places on hikes or in the desert, he said.
Wrobel served in the Army National Guard from 1989 through 1994 and again in 2003 and 2004. He said he loved everything about it.
“It makes you a better person,” he said.
He is prouder about being in the rare 1 percent of the population who serve their country than he would be if he were in the 1 percent who are billionaires, he said.
Bird Derrick of Rigby has seen the bell and praises Wrobel’s program.
“I really respect what Matt is about and by how he shows respect for the symbol our heroes served under,” Derrick said. “If anyone’s retiring a flag by burning, we’d like to get the grommets, because it takes a lot of grommets to cast a bell. We can take them to Matt.”
Wrobel says they may next use the grommets to make commemorative coins.
To donate to Wrobel’s project, call Ron Derrick, Rigby’s American Legion post commander, at 208-569-0126.