You may not know Mike Sanders, but if you live in Leesburg, chances are you would recognize him instantly.
After all, it’s hard to miss a burly, 6-foot-2-inch man dressed in neoprene riding a bicycle around town covered head to toe in flags, be it the middle of a record heat wave in the early summer or the biting frost of February.
When Sanders ditches his biking attire, sits down in a recliner in his Leesburg home in the Exeter neighborhood, it’s impossible not to ask the obvious question—why?
Why ride his bicycle around town, planting American flags by Mom’s Apple Pie at the intersection of Loudoun and East Market streets, or at the intersection of Rt. 7 and Rt. 9 west of town, or by the W&OD trail at the intersection of Battlefield Parkway and the Leesburg Bypass?
“I started right after that funeral I watched [for Purcellville soldier Stephan Mace in October 2009],” Sanders said. “It was something that struck me and I guess it was one of those things…I wanted to make sure that we all remember that the freedom we have is not free.
“I’m hoping as I put these flags out, we start remembering that. If those guys did what we did over here, they wouldn’t win, because you have to do it as a team. Maybe if I put out enough flags, instead of us going at each other, we come together as we should to take care of this country.”
Sanders, 46, served in the U.S. Air Force for 18 years and now works in intelligence in Chantilly. His girlfriend, Sue Robinson, said he’s a cyclist first and the Flag Guy second. Sanders tried out for the Olympic cycling team in 2008 despite riding with a broken arm. Sanders said he sometimes rides for 10 hours in a day, though he never keeps track.
When he returns home from his rides, he writes poetry, he listens to jazz and he thinks. He reflects. He says the first thing he does when he wakes up and the last thing he does before he goes to sleep is look in the mirror.
The self-described “country boy” from rural South Carolina, the grandson of a Pentecostal minister, speaks heavily in proverbs, dispenses as much advice in a single conversation as he can and sports a perpetual smile—especially when he’s talking about his beloved Pittsburgh Steelers.
He wasn’t always like this. He moved to Leesburg about six years ago, before which he lived in Arlington and adjusted to city life, which he said never suited him. He loves nature, he loves peace and quiet, and he loves helping others. He calls cycling and planting flags his therapy.
“It’s therapeutic for me, because every day when I get up in the morning, I think about [the troops],” Sanders said. “When people ask me about riding in the heat, I say it’s my dedication to them, because every day they get up in the heat. Even in that heat, when they’re tired and they’re worn out, sometimes the only thing they think about is that flag. They know somebody back home is seeing that same flag, and that makes them keep going.”
About once every two weeks, Sanders drives his black SUV to Ben Franklin on Catoctin Circle to buy a bag of about 100 miniature flags. He said he’s been offered money to help fuel his hobby, but he’s never accepted a dime.
“The smile on someone’s face is worth more than anyone can give me,” he said.
Although Sanders is gregarious and outgoing, Robinson insists he has no desire for publicity. The only reason he agrees to be interviewed by a reporter is the inherent politeness instilled in him during his time on a farm in South Carolina.
“He’s not doing it for the recognition,” Robinson said. “He wants people to remember the soldiers and the troops and the guys who have died.”
That much is obvious when he’s asked how it feels to be a local celebrity, and responds with sheepish giggles, only to brush aside the question, calling it community service.
He’s relentlessly complimentary of the fire and police departments—a police spokesman said the department is aware of his activities and hasn’t received any complaints—and said he helps anyone whenever he can. He’ll even do housework for neighbors, provided they feed him.
“He’s a very selfless person,” Peggy Forbes, a neighbor, said. “He’s very humble. He just wants the flag out there, he just wants them to remember.”
Sanders references some of his favorite movies almost as much as he mentions his grandfather, his mother and being a country boy. He said he liked Gran Torino because of Clint Eastwood’s character sacrificing for those in need, despite his surface racism. He liked Remember the Titans because of Denzel Washington’s character trying to instill discipline in his character. He even compared himself to Patrick Swayze in Road House for his mantra of being nice, until it’s time to not be nice anymore.
Despite his love of movies and sports, cycling and wildlife, the Flag Guy has that name for a reason, and he doesn’t anticipate giving up his hobby anytime soon. He’s spread it to his vacation spot on the Outer Banks in North Carolina, and even brought it to Seattle when visiting friends. Everywhere he goes, he said, children always have the same, rewarding reaction.
He remembers a time when he wasn’t dressed up, but two little girls recognized him anyway.
“One of them came up to me and said, ‘You’re the flag guy. You really rock.’ No matter how much money I spend, it’s worth it to have kids actually think the flag is a cool thing. That means everything to me,” he said.
One of the proverbs he likes to recite is something he said his mother taught him. “When you leave this Earth, leave it as an asset. When you’re gone, make sure people miss you.
“I consider myself a very proud American. When I see the flag, it gives me chills,” he said. “When we all leave here, the kids are the ones that are going to be taking care of everything. We want them, when they see the flag, to feel like I do.”