He studied all the markings on it carefully. He thought his eyes were deceiving him. Why would anyone want to sell this at a flea market? His heart broke as he continued reading what someone wrote on the flag. Then he turned to his wife, and she noticed his eyes were flooded with tears.
Walter Brown and his wife Lanie have a history with the US Marines. Brown was a serviceman and so was his son in law. But one day, the Texas couple went to the local flea market in the hopes of finding something that was unique. They had no idea they were about to make such an incredible find.
Flea market owner, Fred Yahne, bought items from storage crates, and then he sold them at the market. But one day, he noticed something unusual as he unpacked one of the boxes he had recently acquired. He placed it on a table carefully with the intention of inspecting its contents later. He didn’t realize that his action was the start of an incredible discovery.
“I didn’t know what it was when I was processing the boxes,” Yahne shared, “I really wanted to see what it was.” But when a horde of people walked up to his stall, Yahne got distracted, and he failed to notice that his wife was selling everything, one item at a time. Meanwhile, his unique discovery was on the table, waiting to be found.
Brown was browsing through the flea market when something caught his attention. There was a stack of folded American flags on the table. Then he and his wife decided to take a closer look. But as he searched through the flags, he saw something peculiar. One flag stood out from all of the others. And when he realized why, he was overwhelmed with terrible sadness.
There was writing on the flag. When Brown read it, he knew right away he had to own it. His wife Lanie agreed the moment she read what was on the flag. Fortunately, the price tag said it was only $15, which was a great bargain. But the seller saw the ink and assumed it was defaced, so he took $5 off of the original price.
The Browns took the flag home, placed it on the table, and unfolded it. Then they read what was on it. The words “lance corporal” peaked their interest. “The rank is specific to the Marines, that’s what caught our eye,” explained Lanie. It eventually it became very clear to them what was right in front of their very own eyes.
“Fred, you were a good Marine and we will always remember you,” read one message. Another read “Hey CHEEKS, wherever you are, make sure you watch over us.” The messages were meant for a man named Fred. But who was he? And why did people write on this American flag? They asked their son-in-law who had the answers they needed.
Brown’s son-in-law explained that the couple had bought a “tribute flag” at the flea market. Each member of “Fred’s” unit had written something. It was their way of paying tribute to the fallen lance corporal. Brown was hit with a wave of sadness. Who did this flag belong to? Why wasn’t it in the hands of the fallen soldier’s family? Then he realized what had to be done.
Brown and his wife Lanie took on the enormous task of returning this flag to the fallen soldier’s family. But how were they going to find them? That’s when they enlisted their daughter’s help. Catie was tech-savvy. So, she went on social media and started looking for the soldier’s next of kin. But the task was proving to be quite a challenge.
One day, Catie found Patsy Maciel, a woman who turned out to be Fred’s mother. The tribute flag was made to honor him. She told Catie that she had some serious reservations about Fred joining the Marines, but that he went ahead and enlisted anyway. “I cried for three days trying to convince him not to (join)… I lost that fight,” she explained with tears in her eyes.
“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,” explained Marciel. Fred was stationed in Iraq in 2013 when tragedy struck. He was 20 years old at the time. Marciel recalled how her own mother woke her up when the horrible news was released on television.
Her mother had seen the news report that said a helicopter carrying servicemen had crashed on the outskirts of Baghdad due to a major sandstorm. Then, someone knocked on Marciel’s door. And that’s when they told her about her son. "For eight years, I was a basket case,” shared Maciel. “I didn’t know how to go on without my son.”
The Marines sent Fred’s personal belongings to Marciel, but his tribute flag was not among any of the items. No one knows how the flag got separated from everything else. But them, Marciel got Catie’s message asking for her number 9 years later. Marciel thought about the emotional call. “She said I have something of Fred’s I want to give you.”
The Browns drove to Calvary Hill Cemetery in Texas to visit Fred’s grave. That’s when they gave Marciel her son’s flag in person. “I could have mailed it to you and put it in a box, but I wanted to meet you,” explained Catie. Fred’s family and friends showed up too. Marciel was stunned to see Marines and Patriot Guard Riders there ready to salute her.
As the Browns gave Marciel the flag, Lanie told her: “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.” Walter was misty-eyed through the entire thing. Then he explained that to return such an important piece of Fred to his mother was a privilege and an honor.
“I’ve got peace in my heart. I’m happy. This is all for my son. Nobody forgot my son,” she said. “It’ll be with me till I die. This is a piece of my son I’m getting back. It’s a great feeling,” Marciel told US Today, as she was overcome with gratitude and emotion.
Everyone cried as they paid tribute to the fallen hero known as Fred. Marciel was touched by the compassion, the love and support that was shared at the reunion. Her son was finally given the memorial he warranted. The twist of fate that returned the tribute flag to her 9 years later is truly one for the history books.
Fred’s cousin, Lee Nelson, was among those who were grateful for the flag. “It was amazing to come to my family like this. It’s funny how things work out,” he explained. If the Browns hadn’t been at the flea market that day, the flag would have remained lost. Fortunately, Walter Brown knew that the flag had special meaning the second it caught his attention.
The Browns’ kind efforts were able to give Fred’s mother something she never thought she’d get back. In the process, the experience bonded the two families. Patsy and Marciel are now close friends. “I was real blessed that both of my boys came home in one piece and I have a huge responsibility to her,” explained Lanie. This just proves that sometimes, the universe will go out of its way to bring a couple of good people together in the most magical way ever.