The flag was covered in writing, full of about two dozen handwritten messages from fellow platoon members. The flag was a tribute to a fallen soldier, a young Marine named Fred Lee Maciel. Fred was 20 years 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 tribute 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 the tale of the couple who found this flag, understood its meaning, and brought it to the person who needed it most: the deceased soldier’s mother. 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 in Hemphill, Texas, one day and stumbled upon an American flag. The flag was tucked away in the corner of a booth. Walter picked it up, assuming that it was just another run-of-the-mill Old Glory.
Walter held it in his hands for a minute and noticed that the stars and stripes were covered in writing, handwriting specifically. It took him a minute or so, but then it dawned on him. When he realized what he was looking at, he was overcome with sorrow.
Close Ties to the U.S. Marines
Lanie, his wife, didn’t understand why tears had suddenly formed in her husband’s eyes. He was obviously overwhelmed by the item and couldn’t control his emotions. She wondered what he had discovered.
Walter and Lanie happened to have a connection with the U.S. Marines themselves. Walter had been a Marine, and so had his son-in-law, Lanie’s child from her previous marriage. So, they were no strangers to what certain American flags can represent.
The couple understood that this specific flag meant far too much to be sitting on a flea market table.
They Were Only Looking for a Holster
Lanie and Walter Brown were only at the flea market in the first place to find a holster for Walter’s Walther P22. However, like most people, they always liked to glance at what else was being sold. So, they had walked around looking at what the market had to offer.
With piles of items strewn out on display over the many tables, the couple didn’t expect to find something so deep and meaningful. Eventually, they would find out that the people running the flea market also had no idea what a unique item they had their hands on.
A Flag Misplaced
Fred Yahne was the owner of the flea market. His operation runs in a simple way: he buys items from storage crates and sells them at his flea market. He later admitted that the flag had caught his eye too.
After this story came out, he claimed to have noticed an unusual flag in his inventory. After spotting it, he had set it aside on a table, intending to look at it later but had forgotten about it.
Maybe his forgetfulness was a blessing in disguise, for it made its way into the hands of the right person.
The Writing on the Flag
Although the messages on the flag were handwritten, Walter was able to decipher most of what was scrawled between the stripes. Walter knew he had to buy the thing once he began reading what was on the flag.
He showed Lanie what was written on it, and she immediately agreed that they needed to purchase the flag. The item had a price tag of $15. However, the person selling it at the booth saw the writing and figured it was defaced, so they decided to reduce the price to $5.
Once the curious couple returned to their home in Orange, Texas, they spread the flag open on the table and tried to find out 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, which was 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 truly belonged to someone else.
To whom did it belong, and how did it end up in a flea market?
“We Will Always Remember You”
The couple sat down together, spread out their find, and read all the messages they could decipher on the star-spangled banner. One note read, “Fred, you were a good Marine, and we will always remember you.” Another said, “Hey CHEEKS, wherever you are, make sure you watch over us.”
It became apparent that a Lance Corporal Marine by the name of Fred was the subject of attention. But the couple was intrigued and had more questions. Who was Fred? Was Cheeks his last name or a nickname? And what had happened to the poor Marine?
A Tribute Flag
The couple didn’t quite understand why people would write on an American flag in this way. So, they spoke to Lanie’s son, who was a Marine himself. It turns out that he had had some information that would help them piece together the mystery.
Walter’s son-in-law explained that what they had bought was referred to in the corps as a “tribute flag.” Everyone in Fred’s unit wrote something in honor of the Marine, who had been killed in action.
This completely changed the way they felt about the flag, which meant they had to do something.
They Knew What to Do
Once the Browns understood what he had told them, they truly knew the gravity of the situation. They realized then and there that this special flag shouldn’t be in their hands; it belonged to someone else who needed it far more than they did!
But who? They didn’t understand how Fred’s family wasn’t already in possession of the flag. The couple knew what they needed to do. They had to return the flag to Fred’s family, but they weren’t sure how to go about it.
How could they find Fred’s loved ones when they didn’t even know who he was?
Back to the Flea Market
So, Walter and Lanie went back to the flea market to try and dig up some information. They spoke to Fred Yahne (the flea market owner), who explained that he didn’t know what it was when he was processing the boxes and said that he had really wanted to see what it was.
But when a large group of people suddenly appeared at his station, Yahne became distracted and forgot all about the flag. He hadn’t been aware that his wife had begun selling the items on the table, flag included.
When he came back, it was gone.
Finding the Flag
Tracking down the family of the fallen Marine proved to be far harder than one might think. All the Browns had was the first name to lead them to the Lance Corporal’s family. Therefore, the two asked their daughter, Catie, to give them a hand.
Catie is good with technology and helped them search social media sites for the soldier’s family. But even she had a hard time finding family members without a last name to help her. But after many long searches, she finally found what they were looking for.
Lance Corporal Fred Maciel
Catie found Patsy Maciel, Fred’s mother. She helped the Browns get in touch with Patsy to tell her about the tribute flag in honor of her son. And thus, nine long years after her son’s death, Patsy received a message about him from a stranger.
Catie asked for her number, and when they spoke, it was emotional. “She said, ‘I have something of Fred’s I want to give you,'” Patsy later recalled. She told them about her son and his experience in the war, including how she’d had a bad feeling when her son joined up in 2003.
She Lost That Fight
Patsy Maciel was highly anxious when her son Fred decided to join the Marine Corps in 2003. But despite her worries, Fred went ahead and signed up. “I cried for three days trying to convince him not to,” Patsy recalled. She uttered through tears that she had “lost that fight.”
She went on to say that Fred’s dream was to be a Marine, and she wasn’t going to prevent him from fulfilling his dreams. However, she hadn’t known that losing that fight would mean losing her son. She couldn’t have known that her worst fears would come true.
It Was His Dream
Patsy told the Browns that Fred’s dream was to be a Marine and that she had to let him do that. She was proud of him that he died doing what he loved. Patsy hadn’t known about the tribute flag; she had already received all of her son’s other belongings and the official flag that draped his coffin during the funeral.
After enlisting and going through boot camp, Fred was sent to Iraq, and it was there that tragedy struck in January 2005. Fred wasn’t even 21 when he fell.
His mother and grandmother heard about it on the news.
There Had Been an Accident
On January 26th, 2005, Fred’s grandmother woke Patsy up after seeing news of the tragedy on broadcast T.V. There had been an accident. All they wanted to know was that Fred hadn’t been involved. A helicopter carrying only Marines had gotten caught in a severe sandstorm.
The pilot hadn’t been able to steer, and the helicopter had crashed west of Baghdad, near Rutbah, Iraq. The names of the wounded and dead had not been released yet, and it was unclear whether Fred was safe or not.
What the news had shown was 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. That was when the reality of the situation came crashing down. Every family with children in the army fears that fateful rap on the door, for their lives might be forever altered by one such knock.
Patsy was told of her son’s death. She later recalled, “For eight years, I was a basket case. I didn’t know how to go on without my son.” The years passed by, and she struggled with the loss of her child.
How did such an accident happen? She would find out.
A Tragic Day
There were 31 military casualties from that accident, and it happened on a day that is considered “the deadliest day for the U.S. troops in the Iraq war.” The Marines were on the helicopter because of the upcoming elections in Iraq. The young men were part of a routine mission in support of the elections.
The helicopter, a Sikorsky CH-53E Super Stallion, went down at 1:20 a.m. near Rutba, a town in western Iraq near the Jordanian and Syrian borders. In the crash, thirty Marines and one Navy medic were killed.
The Day After the Crash
The day after the crash, the Pentagon released a statement that it was not yet known how many people were on board. Furthermore, they weren’t sure at first whether the helicopter had been shot down or crashed by accident.
A CH-53E helicopter typically carries 30 passengers but can carry up to 55 if need be. The Marines on board were from the 3rd Marine Division. The crash went under a thorough investigation before it was declared an accident. The names and number of the dead were only released to the public after the families were notified.
The Helicopters Were to Fly Evasively
The pilots were ordered to fly evasively at all times. American helicopters routinely fly at tree-top level to avoid detection. Furthermore, Army and Marine helicopters often fly at night, like the Super Stallion that crashed, because the threat of being attacked is lower.
Because helicopters fly so low, one of the main dangers is electrical and telephone wires, which they end up needing to clear in flight. The CH-53E Super Stallion is the largest and heaviest helicopter used by the U.S. military.
But why did the Super Stallion crash that day?
Fragile Pieces of Equipment
Weather conditions can also cause problems and accidents. Ivan Oelrich, the director of the Strategic Security Project at the Federation of American Scientists, said that “Helicopters are fairly fragile pieces of equipment.”
“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 climate in which the helicopter is flown can be fatal, especially since they fly at such low altitudes to avoid drawing fire from enemy forces.
The Helicopter Used to Be One of the Safest
Before the crash, the CH-53E Super Stallion had a relatively 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.
The Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation produces this helicopter model. It is the fourth largest helicopter in the world. And it was supposed to be operable in any weather condition, whether good or bad.
So, what went wrong with the CH-53E this time?
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 is also set up with night vision ability, ensuring that night flying should be safe and straightforward.
Yet despite all its skills, this helicopter, like any other, is still vulnerable to harsh external forces. If forced to fly evasively in lousy weather, a pilot can become disoriented; this is what happened that fateful day, causing the deadliest single incident in the Iraqi War for American troops.
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 they are landing, as it causes enormous clouds of dust. In Iraq, many United States aircrafts have become contaminated by sand, which causes accidents and causalities.
The sand mixes with lubricants and turns them into sticky, gum-like masses. When combined with the use of night-vision goggles, spatial disorientation, or a small mistake made by a pilot, sand can prove to be deadly.
The Marines aboard that helicopter had one mission.
The mission for the troops in Iraq was to “help bring democracy and freedom to the Iraqi people.” The helicopter was taking the 30 Marines and 1 Navy medic to secure a polling site. They needed to prepare the site for the Iraqi parliamentary elections. Alas, for the soldiers on that helicopter, this mission would be their last.
After the accident, the troops who died that day received eulogies. Fred Maciel’s representative in Congress spoke about him. He stated that “Maciel in his 20 years had already exhibited a lifetime of sacrifice and selflessness.”
And that was not all…
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 30th elections in Iraq and had plans to marry his fiancée, Jamie Daugherty.”
Jamie, Fred’s fiancée, wrote in response to his obituary, “I know you were happy and died doing what you wanted to do and with tons of honor. I will never forget you and the memories we share…. I love you with all my heart…”
Devotion to His Country
Fred was further honored in his representative’s speech: “Lance Corporal Maciel, we will remember, we will forever remember your fight against these international outlaws.” The representative ended thus: “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.” Many people were truly touched and inspired by Fred’s sacrifice.
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 had even been made for her son. She had received a different American flag, an official one, which was draped over her son’s coffin during the funeral.
It had been a long time since Fred’s passing, so no one could remember what happened with his belongings and how the flag had been misplaced and had never made it to Mrs. Maciel. 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. Fred’s grave is where the Browns and Patsy decided to meet to hand over the flag. The Browns told Patsy, “We could have mailed it to you and put it in a box, but we wanted to meet you.”
It was symbolic to set the get-together at Fred’s burial place to honor the young man. When Patsy Maciel arrived at the military cemetery on that day in July 2014, she was shocked to see who was there.
She had not been expecting this.
Word Got Out
When word got out that the tribute flag was being returned to the fallen soldier’s mother, the cemetery became flooded with people close to Fred who wanted to further honor and remember him. The fact that the Browns had come forward to return the flag to Patsy brought about an impromptu memorial.
At the cemetery, other family members and friends showed up as well. In addition, Marines and Patriot Guard Riders came, waiting to salute the mother of the fallen American hero.
The spontaneous event was incredibly touching, and all thanks to the Brown family.
It Became a Memorial
The Browns handed Patsy the lost tribute flag. Lanie said, “Patsy, 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. When the two women hugged, they felt as if they had known each other their whole lives. The Browns had succeeded in lifting the spirits of the grieving mother.
“Nobody Forgot My Son”
The Browns handed Patsy her son’s flag in a small box. Now with the tribute in hand, Fred’s mother looked at everyone who had taken the time to come out there to honor him. She proceeded to give a speech to express her gratitude.
“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 to be found. Everyone there during the memorial reminded Patsy of the community of veterans and their families that she was a part of. Patsy believed that Fred’s wish was to get the whole family together again, and even from Heaven, he succeeded.
Fred’s mother wasn’t the only one overcome with emotion. His cousin, Lee Nelson, was also very grateful for the return of the flag. He noted: “It was amazing that it came to my family like this. It’s funny how things work out.”
The Browns and the Maciel family connected as a result of this story, and it brought them close. Patsy and Lanie now consider each other to be good friends. Both women had children in the Marines and can relate to one another.
Lanie was quoted saying, “I was real blessed that both of my boys came home in one piece, and I have a huge responsibility to her.” Patsy had the flag framed and hung up in her home to honor her son and remind her of the kindness of the Brown family for returning it to her.
Not the Only One
Fred Maciel was not the only person killed on that fateful day on January 26th, 2005. There were 30 others. Marine Cpl Stephen P. Johnson was one of them. From Covina, California, Johnson was sent to Iraq and served about four years in the Marine Corps.
He had just finished his high school degree requirements through the Marines. Johnson was 24 when he was killed in the helicopter crash in Iraq. He, too, left behind a family and loved ones. This deadly helicopter crash left many families without their sons and husbands.
An Easy Decision
Stephen Johnson was an easy-going guy who always took things lightly. But he took his military duty very seriously. Joining the Marines was an easy choice for him; it was “something he had always wanted to do,” said his sister, Kari Williams.
Cpl. Johnson left behind his wife, Kelsey. The young wife was only 19 years old at the time of her husband’s passing. The last time she had spoken to her husband was the day before the helicopter crash. Stephan had told her he had a “really bad feeling.”
His Son Was His World
Sadly, Johnson also left behind a son, who was one year old at the time. His son’s name is Tyler Johnson. “I know his whole world revolved around his son,” his sister 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.”
When Kelsey heard about her husband’s death, she fell to the ground crying. The young mother was heartbroken that her son would grow up without his loving father. Tyler himself was too young to understand the tragedy that had befallen him.
His Mother Left Him a Message
His mother left him a message: “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 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
The President of the United States at the time was George W. Bush. After the deadly crash, he also expressed his sorrow. At a White House press conference about the crash, he said, “Any time we lose life, it is a sad moment.”
“We value life, and we weep and mourn when soldiers lose their life.” The President continued, saying that despite this, “it is the long-term objective that is vital, and that is to spread freedom.”
The troops who lost their lives did so in the name of freedom and liberty.
A touching story such as this is a reminder of many things. It reminds us that even the simplest items can hold power and meaning. It also reminds us that there are good people in this world who take the opportunity to do the right thing.
The tribute flag could easily have been purchased by someone else, who may not have understood its significance. It could also never have been found at all. Luckily, fate intervened, and the flag reached the hands of the Brown family, who returned it to its rightful owner, honoring her fallen son.