MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- Brian Tolstyka stood at the edge of a giant American flag spread across several tables in the Veterans Affairs hospital gym and prepared to stitch his place in history.
Tolstyka, 43, slipped a threaded needle into the fabric of a red stripe. The 300 people in the West Virginia gym clapped. The Gulf War veteran felt a lump in his throat.
The 30-foot flag flew from a half-destroyed building across from ground zero in New York in those dark days after Sept. 11 -- its stripes torn and tattered by debris from the World Trade Center.
In 2008, it was mended by 58 tornado survivors in Kansas with remnants of flags from their communities.
Dubbed the National 9/11 Flag, it's been traveling the country ever since.
Within hours of the attacks, flags seemed to be everywhere.
Tolstyka, who served in the Army and organizes memorial motorcycle rides for veterans, bought a flag for his car antenna a few days after Sept. 11. "It was a symbol of support," he said.
It was also a show of defiance against the terrorists, a rallying cry of unity and a soothing security blanket for a wounded nation.
"Every time there's some kind of national emergency, we put up flags," said Carolyn Marvin, a professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania. "The flag represents the life of the country."
After Sept. 11, the flag took on a larger-than-life symbolism and brought that unity to a grieving country.
A New Jersey photographer snapped a photo of three city firefighters raising a flag on the ruined trade center site in an image that instantly was compared to the 1945 photo of U.S. Marines raising the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima.
In December 2001, Congress designated Sept. 11 as "Patriot Day" to honor those lost during the attacks -- and mandated that all flags should be flown at half-staff each year on that day.
For Bob McKee, of Van Buren, Ohio, the flag symbolizes how much the U.S. has grown and changed over the years while remaining strong. The 60-year-old flies four U.S. flags outside of his home near Findlay, Ohio -- a community that's been known as Flag City since the 1970s.
"People from both political parties, from the left to the right, the one thing they have in common is the love for their country, and what represents that is the U.S. flag," he said.
After Sept. 11, McKee draped the flag in black crepe.
The attacks did more than usher a renaissance for the U.S. flag; they have also spawned a cottage industry of entirely new flag designs, mostly sold to raise money for various 9/11 charities.
There's the "Flag of Heroes," which lists the names of all emergency workers who died Sept. 11. The "Flag of Honor" lists the names of everyone who died in the attacks that day.
Two flags are dedicated to the 40 who died aboard Flight 93 in a Shanksville, Pa., field.
A retired Catholic priest created the "Thunder Flag," comprised of a blue stripe on top, white in the middle, and red on the bottom. On the top blue stripe are four white stars, representing the four planes on 9/11. The other colors represent heaven, courage and American soil.
There's a "9/11 National Remembrance Flag," loosely modeled on the POW-MIA flag.
There's a traditional American flag with the New York City skyline, including the twin towers, superimposed on the field of stars.
There's the "9/11 Patriot Flag," created by a Sept. 11 survivor, that depicts the Pentagon, two trident steel columns from the World Trade Center and four stars, one for each hijacked jet that crashed on Sept. 11.
That flag shouldn't be confused with the other "Patriot Flag" -- a 75-pound, traditional U.S. flag that's also touring the country to honor the victims.
West Virginia is the 32nd state to host the national flag's tour.
A New York construction worker retrieved the flag and stored it at his home in a plastic bag for seven years -- then brought it to Kansas when a nonprofit group, the New York Says Thank You Foundation, went to help people there recover from a tornado strike.
State by state, Americans are stitching the banner back together, using pieces of fabric from American flags scheduled for retirement.
The greying, faded flag that once flew across from ground zero might be most remembered for what it offers: a chance for ordinary Americans to weave a bit of their own history into the fabric.
In Martinsburg, Dawn Johns, 41, waited in line. She had been there since the beginning, to mend a tiny piece of national history. She said that she could feel the patriotism, the emotion, as she looked at the flag.
"It represents everyone coming together and helping one another after a tragedy."
Two hours later, it was Johns' turn to stitch, She had tears in her eyes as she took the needle in her hand.