The flag was covered in writing, full of handwritten messages from fellow platoon members. The flag was a tribute to a fallen soldier, a young Marine named Fred Lee Maciel. He was a 20-year-old when he died serving his country in Iraq in 2005.
This flag was not in the arms of the fallen soldier’s parents. It wasn’t being taken care of by family members. And it wasn’t in a museum. This flag was found at a flea market. That’s right, the sentimental piece of material was being sold among old mugs, carpets, and rocking chairs.
This is a story of a couple who found this flag, understood its meaning, and brought it to the person who needed it the most: the mother. The only question is why was such a meaningful item being sold at a flea market? And for $5, no less. Here’s the story.
A Flea Market Find
Walter Brown and his wife, Lanie, were at a flea market one day and stumbled upon an American flag. Walter picked it up, assuming it was any regular flag and held it in his hands for a while.
He noticed that it was covered in writing, handwriting specifically. It took him a moment or two but then it dawned on him exactly what he was looking at. And he was swept over with sorrow.
Close Ties to the US Marines
Lanie, his wife, didn’t understand why she suddenly saw her husband with tears forming in his eyes. He was obviously overwhelmed by the item and couldn’t control his emotions.
Walter and Lanie happen to have a connection with the U.S. Marines. Walter was a Marine, as well as his son-in-law. So they were no strangers to the flag and what certain ones represent.
And this one flag meant too much to be sitting on a flea market table.
They Were Only Looking for a Holster
The couple was only at the flea market in the first place to find a holster for Walter’s Walther P22, but like most people, they would have a gander at what else was being sold.
Ina Tsitovich / Contributor/ Getty Images
With piles of items on display on the many tables, the couple didn’t expect to find something of deep meaning. And eventually they would also find out that the people running the flea market had no idea what a unique item they had their hands on.
A Flag Misplaced
Fred Yahne owns the flea market. His operation runs in a simple way: he buys items from storage crates and then sells them at his flea market. He later admitted that the flag caught his eye.
After this story came out, he admitted that he noticed an unusual flag in his inventory. After seeing it, he set it aside on the table with the intention to look at it later, but he forgot about it.
And maybe it was a blessing in disguise, for it got into the hands of the right person.
The Writings on the Flag
Although the writing on the flag was handwritten, Walter was able to decipher it. Once he understood what was reading on the flag, he knew he had to buy it.
Once Lanie also read what was written on the flag, she agreed that they needed to purchase it. The flag had a price tag of $15 on it. But the man who was selling it saw the writing and figured it was defaced, so he decided to reduce the price to $5.
Once the couple got home, they spread open the flag on the table and tried to find who it belonged to. They found the words “Lance Corporal” and were instantly intrigued.
Lanie would later report that “the rank is specific to the Marines, that’s what caught our eye.” As they continued to read what was written on the flag, it was evident that what they had in their hands belonged to someone else…
But who did it belong to and why was it there?
“We Will Always Remember You”
The couple sat, reading all the messages they saw on the flag. One note read, “Fred, you were a good Marine and we will always remember you.” Another: “Hey CHEEKS, wherever you are, make sure you watch over us.”
Karen Warren / Today
It appeared that a marine by the name of Fred was the subject of attention. But the Browns had more questions. Who was this Fred? And was Cheeks his last name, or a nickname?
A Tribute Flag
The couple didn’t understand why people would write on an American flag in this way? It turns out their son-in-law had some information they needed to hear.
Walter’s his son-in-law was also a Marine and he explained that what they bought was referred to as a “tribute flag.” Everyone in this Fred’s unit wrote something in honor of the Marine, who had been killed in action.
This completely changed the way they felt and it meant they had to do something.
They Knew What to Do
Once the Browns heard what he told them, they understood the gravity of the situation. They realized that this flag shouldn’t be in their hands; it belonged to someone else who needed it.
But who? They didn’t understand how Fred’s family didn’t have the flag. The couple knew what they needed to do, but weren’t sure how to go about it.
Back to the Flea Market
Later, Walter and Lanie went back to the flea market to find out some information. They spoke to Fred Yahne (the flea market owner) who said, “I didn’t know what it was when I was processing the boxes. I really wanted to see what it was.”
Andia / Contributor/ Getty Images
But when a large group of people suddenly appeared at his station, Yahne was distracted and forgot about the flag. He wasn’t aware at that moment that his wife began selling all the items on the table, including the flag.
And when he came back, the flag was gone.
Finding the Flag
Finding the family of the fallen Marine wasn’t going to be as easy as one may think. All they had was a first name. The two asked their daughter, Catie, to help them out.
Catie is good with technology and searched on social media sites for the soldier’s family. But even she had a hard time finding family members. But after long searches, she found what they were looking for.
Lance Corporal Fred Maciel
Catie found Patsy Maciel, Fred’s mother. Catie got in touch with her, telling her about the tribute flag in honor of her son. And thus, nine years after his death, Patsy received a message.
Catie asked for her number. And when the two spoke, it was emotional. “She said ‘I have something of Fred’s I want to give you,’” Patsy later recalled. She revealed to Catie a lot about her son and the experience with war.
Like how she had a bad feeling when her son joined the army in 2003.
She Lost That Fight
Patsy was anxious when her son joined the Marines in 2003. But despite her worries, Fred went ahead and signed up anyway. “I cried for three days trying to convince him not to,” she said.
Patsy uttered through tears that she “lost that fight.” She went on to say that Fred’s dream was to be a marine. And she wasn’t going to stop him.
It Was His Dream
Patsy told Catie: “His dream was to be a Marine, and I had to let him do that. I’m proud of him, that he died doing what he loved.”
After enlisting, Fred was sent to Iraq, and it was there that tragedy struck, in 2005. Fred wasn’t even 21.
His mother and grandmother heard the news…
There Had Been an Accident
Fred’s grandmother woke up Patsy, after news of the tragedy was broadcast on TV. There was an accident. And all they needed to know was that Fred wasn’t involved.
What happened was a helicopter carrying only Marines got caught in a serious sandstorm. The pilot wasn’t able to steer and they crashed west of Baghdad. And that’s the only information Fred’s family had.
A Knock on the Door
After days of hearing nothing, his family heard a knock on the door. And that’s when the reality of the situation came crashing down.
Patsy was told of her son’s death. She later said, “For eight years, I was a basket case. I didn’t know how to go on without my son.” As the years passed, she struggled with the loss.
How did such a thing happen? She would find out.
A Tragic Day
There were 37 casualties from that accident, which is considered “the deadliest day for US in the Iraq war.” And the reason the marines were on the helicopter in the first place was because of the upcoming elections in Iraq. The young men were on the helicopter to arrive at a polling station.
The helicopter, a CH-53E Super Stallion, went down at 1:20 a.m. near Rutba, a town in western Iraq near the Jordanian border.
The Day After the Crash
The day after, a Pentagon source said it’s unknown how many people were on board, and they also weren’t sure at first if it was shot down or crashed in an accident.
The helicopter normally carries 37 passengers but it can take up to 55. The marines on board were from the 1st Marine Division. The crash was under investigation before they declared it an accident.
The Helicopters Were to Fly Evasively
The pilots were ordered to fly evasively at all times. American helicopters routinely fly at tree-top level. Like the Super Stallion that crashed, Army and Marine helicopters often fly at night, when the threat of being attacked is decreased.
Because helicopters fly so low, one of the main dangers is electrical and telephone wires, which they end up leaping over in flight. The CH-53E Super Stallion is the largest and heaviest helicopter used by the US military.
Fragile Pieces of Equipment
Evidently, weather also causes problems. “Helicopters are fairly fragile pieces of equipment,” said Ivan Oelrich, the director of the Strategic Security Project at the Federation of American Scientists.
“It’s rough for them to operate in a dusty, desert environment where the dust can get into the machinery. And they are vulnerable to ground fire because they fly at slow speeds, close to the ground.”
The Helicopter Used to Be One of the Safest
Before the crash, the CH-53E Super Stallion had a strong safety record. Analysts said that its safety was due to the maturity of its design and the reliability of its equipment.
The helicopter was first used in 1981, based on a design from the days of the Vietnam War. It’s produced by the Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation.
And it was supposed to operate in bad weather…
Designed for Bad Weather
The three-engine aircraft is designed to operate in bad weather, day and night. It can lift more, go further and fly faster than other helicopters. It was also equipped with night vision ability.
Yet despite all its skills, the helicopter is still vulnerable to harsh forces. If forced to fly evasively in bad weather, a pilot can get disoriented. Which is exactly what happened that day.
Sand is an Enemy
Sand is a helicopter’s worst enemy in Iraq. Sand wears down rotors and seeps into engines and electronics. It can also blind pilots when landing, as it causes huge clouds of dust.
The sand mixes with lubricants and turns them into sticky gum-like masses.
And the marines on that helicopter had one mission.
The mission for the soldiers was to “help bring democracy and freedom to the Iraqi people.” Alas, this mission was their last one.
After the accident, the marines who died that day received eulogies. And Fred Maciel’s representative in Congress spoke of him. He stated that, “Maciel in his 20 years had already exhibited a lifetime of sacrifice and selflessness.”
And there’s more…
The Magnitude of the Tragedy
His representative continued: “The magnitude of the tragedy only becomes worse when you take into account the life Maciel had in front of him when it was extinguished so suddenly.”
“Maciel was scheduled to return home following the January 30 elections in Iraq and had plans to marry his fiancée, Jamie Hommel.” Obviously, his fiancée received the devastating news as well.
Devotion to His Country
Fred was further honored in the speech: “Lance Corporal Maciel we will remember, we will forever remember your fight against these international outlaws.” And his representative ended with this:
“Maciel died in helping establish democracy in a land far, far away. You know, some causes are worth dying for. And liberty is one of those causes … may this American hero’s devotion to his country continue to kindle our dreams and ambitions of a free people. So Semper Fi, Lance Corporal Maciel, Semper Fi.”
A Tribute Flag and Other Belongings
After Fred’s death, the Marines sent his personal belongings to his mother. Patsy admitted that she didn’t know that a tribute flag that was made for her son was missing.
It’s been a long time since Fred’s passing, so it is hard to remember what happened with his belongings. But regardless of how it got lost, the flag needed to reach Patsy.
In Calvary Hill
Fred was buried in Calvary Hill Cemetery in Texas. The cemetery is where the Browns and Patsy decided to meet to hand over the flag.
Catie told Patsy, “I could have mailed it to you and put it in a box, but I wanted to meet you.” And when Patsy arrived at the military cemetery, she was shocked to see who was there.
She wasn’t expecting this.
Word Got Out
After word got out that this flag was being returned to a fallen soldier’s mother, the cemetery became flooded with people close to Fred that wanted to further honor him.
At the cemetery, other family members and friends of Fred there as well. In addition, Marines and Patriot Guard Riders came, waiting to salute the mother of a fallen American hero.
And the event was touching, to say the least.
It Became a Memorial
The Browns handed Patsy the lost tribute flag. “Patsy,” Lanie said, “our family feels so honored to have been chosen to find this flag … Thank you for sharing this piece of your boy with us.” As she spoke, Walter couldn’t help but be overcome with emotion
Walter also told Patsy that it was their privilege and honor to be the ones presenting Fred’s flag to her.
Patsy then had a new way to look at the circumstances.
“Nobody Forgot My Son”
Now with the flag in her hands, Fred’s mother looked out at everyone who took the time to come out there to honor him. And she had to say some words to express herself.
“I’ve got peace in my heart. I’m happy. This is all for my son. Nobody forgot my son.” As for the flag, she said that “it’ll be with me till I die. This is a piece of my son I’m getting back. It’s a great feeling.”
Not a Dry Eye
That day at the cemetery, there wasn’t a dry eye in the area. Everyone being there in solidarity during the memorial reminded Patsy of the community of veterans and their families she was a part of.
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Fred’s mother wasn’t the only overcome with emotion. His cousin, Lee Nelson, was also very grateful for the return of the flag. He noted: “It was amazing to come to my family like this. It’s funny how things work out.”
The Browns and Patsy’s family connected as a result of this story and it brought them closer. Patsy and Lanie now consider each other to be close friends.
USA Today / Youtube
According to Lanie, “I was real blessed that both of my boys came home in one piece and I have a huge responsibility to her.”
Not the Only One
As mentioned earlier, Fred was not the only one killed on that fateful day on January 26, 2005. There were 30 others. And Marine Cpl. Stephen P. Johnson was one of them.
Johnson, from Covina, was sent to Iraq and served about four years in the Marine Corps. He was 24 and was one of the military personnel killed in the helicopter crash in Iraq.
An Easy Decision
Johnson was an easy going guy, taking life lightly. But when it came to his military duty, he took it very seriously. Joining the Marines was an easy decision, “something he had always wanted to do,” his sister said about him.
Johnson left behind his wife, Kelsey. She was 19 years old at the time. The last time she spoke to her husband was the day before the helicopter crash. He told her he had a “really bad feeling.”
His Son Was His World
Sadly, Johnson left behind his son who was one year old at the time. His son’s name is Tyler. “I know his whole world evolved around his son,” his sister, Kari Williams, said.
“When he was stationed in Hawaii, he couldn’t wait to finish work to go home to his son. That was his whole world.”
His Mother Left Him a Message
His mother left a message for her son, the fallen soldier: “Well my precious son, today is your 29th birthday. Megan and I went to pay our respects at the cemetery. I’m still struggling with your absence like most everyone who got the joy of knowing you.”
“I want you to know that all of my tears are tears of joy and the fact that I miss you so deeply. It’s a mom thing!!! I love you bigger than the sky and keep you deep within my heart where you will always live. Until we meet in Heaven. Happy Birthday Beloved son and best friend. Mom”
The President at the Time
You remember of course, that the US president at the time was George W. Bush. And after the deadly crash, he expressed his sorrow.
At the White House press conference, he said “Obviously, any time we lose life, it is a sad moment.”
A story such as this is a reminder of many things. One is that a simple item can hold so much power and meaning. Another reminder is that there are good people in this world that take opportunities to do the right thing.
AP Photo/ Houston Chronicle, Karen Warren
The tribute flag could easily have been purchased by someone else who may not have understood its significance. And then again, it could never have been found at all.