Red Paper Poppies Endure As Symbol of Soldiers' Sacrifice Credit: Poppies image via Shutterstock

Perhaps you've seen veterans distributing little red paper poppies outside grocery stores and convenience stores. Maybe you've even donated a dollar or two and carried one away.

Those little flowers have not only become an iconic symbol of American soldiers' sacrifice, but have proven to be one of the most successful grassroots marketing efforts of all time.

As Memorial Day approaches, the poppies, which are created and distributed by both the American Legion Auxiliary (ALA) and the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), are again being distributed this year. The tradition began more than 90 years ago with a poem and a pledge.

"It is a very strong symbol," said Stephanie Holloway, senior communications editor for the ALA.  "It represents how we should never forget the sacrifices all servicemen and women make, especially those who have made the ultimate sacrifice."

The ALA and VFW launched their paper poppy programs in the early 1920s, inspired by YMCA Overseas War Workers member Moina Michael. Michael, at age 48, began wearing real red poppies after reading and being moved by the poem "In Flanders Fields," written on the battlefront during World War I by Lt. Col. John McCrae. The poem, still often recited at patriotic events, references poppies that dot a field lined with crosses marking the graves of soldiers.

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"This was, for me, a full spiritual experience," Michael wrote in her memoirs. "I pledged to keep the faith and always to wear a red poppy of Flanders Fields as a sign of remembrance and the emblem of 'keeping the faith with all who died.'"

Michael, known as the Poppy Lady from then on, soon took her cause to the American Legion, asking to have veterans assemble and distribute the paper flowers.

"She was so moved and wanted to create something to remember all soldiers," Holloway said.

Today, the ALA annually provides its 9,500 units across the country with a supply of the poppies, and requires they be assembled only by veterans.

"I think that's what makes this really special," Holloway said, noting some disabled veterans use poppy-making in their recovery. "Many even use it as a therapeutic way of rehabilitation."

The poppies are distributed during Memorial Day and Veterans Day events, as well as other "Poppy Days" throughout the year, for a donation.

Last year, the ALA raised $2.1 million through the distribution of more than 3.5 million paper poppies. All the money goes directly to assisting disabled and hospitalized veterans in each community.

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance business and technology writer who has worked in public relations and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter. You can reach him at chadgbrooks@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @cbrooks76.