Sgt. 1st Class Rosalyn D. Peterkin knows how to handle high-stress work.
She has twice been deployed to Iraq. She has earned a reputation at Fort Meade, her home military base, as a top-flight volunteer counselor for at-risk teens. She has raised three kids as a single mother.
But ask Peterkin, 36, an instructor at the Defense Information School on the base, about what she does in her limited spare time, and she can barely conceal her emotions.
"I don't care what the occasion is, who requested us or if I have to get up at 3 in the morning," says Peterkin, the leader of a tightly knit outfit, the DINFOS Color Guard, whose job is to present Old Glory and four service flags at public events in displays of precision pageantry. "If we're asked to present the colors, I'm there."
Peterkin, a native of South Carolina, handles most of her duties with such aplomb that it can be startling to see her eyes suddenly fill with tears. But that's exactly what happens as she speaks of the color guard, a carefully chosen team of seven service members who rehearse up to 14 hours a week, all on their own time, to perfect the time-honored, often intricate routines that are meant to celebrate the nation's freedoms and the military branches that secure them.
Peterkin's team may be asked to perform, or "show the colors," next weekend, as thousands of civilians flood to Fort Meade for its annual Fourth of July celebration.
"Every time I carry the colors, I think of the people who have died for that flag," says Peterkin, who says it's hard for her, protocol or not, to avoid weeping during the ceremonies she participates in. "That means a lot to me."
It wasn't always that way, Peterkin said during a break as the squad drilled for its two ceremonies this week.
Growing up in tiny Clio, S.C., near South of the Border, the Mexican-theme truck stop along Interstate 95, Peterkin lived a less-than-affluent life.
But like so many Americans, she says, she always took her freedoms for granted.
"It used to be that if I ran out of my favorite kind of bread, I'd get upset, because who wants to go to the store to get more?" she says. "Then I was deployed to Iraq [in 2003]. I met people who had no bread at all. And [who had] almost no freedom to do what they wanted to do in their lives.
"There are very few things I can't do if I wish to, if I work hard enough. It really changed my perspective."
She first joined the military in the late 1990s, not long after a brother and a cousin served during the first Gulf War. The letters they sent home, and the stories they told, affected her deeply.
"They talked about how great it felt to serve the country," Peterkin says. "People over there saw America as a symbol of freedom. And these men and women are willing to die to preserve that freedom."
During her two Iraq tours, the most recent in 2006, she worked alongside members of each military branch and came away impressed.
There's nothing unique about a color guard - each service branch has one based in Washington, and each fans out, as needed, to display the colors at events that include ballgames, military retirements, promotions and changes of command.
Two are based at Fort Meade, including one within the National Security Agency. The DINFOS team is drawn from the ranks of the 306 instructors at the Defense Information School on the base, a Defense Department institution where military journalists, photographers and public relations professionals get their training.
For every squad, though, patriotism is written in the minutiae of the routines. Color guard members must master a dizzying array of rules regarding treatment of each flag. First and foremost: The U.S. flag, also called "the national colors" or "the national ensign," is never held at a level lower than the others, and it never bows to another flag or person.
"The armed forces support and protect this nation," Peterkin says softly. "[So] the Army, Navy, Marine and other flags support the national colors."
Other time-honored regulations carry significance: the correct angles at which to hold the staffs; the question of when to "dip" the service flags; the sequence of colors in a procession. The Stars and Stripes always comes first, followed, in turn, by the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard flags.
The team must also fold the flag properly, if a ceremony includes that. The process, similar to what is done at 5 p.m. daily when the Fort Meade flag is lowered, calls for 13 crisp folds which, in the end, leave a neat, triangle-shaped package in which only stars and a blue field are visible.
As NCO IC, or noncommissioned officer in charge, it's usually Peterkin who carries the Stars and Stripes, though she rotates that honor through the team.
"I don't want people out there identifying the flag with any one person," she says. "It's about a nation, not an individual."