When Walter and his wife Lanie found an old flag at a garage sale, they knew what they had to do immediately.
He looked at it carefully and studied all the markings on it. He couldn’t believe his eyes. What was something like this doing at a flea market? He continued to read what was written on the flag, and heartache tore through his soul. With his eyes filling with tears, he turned to his wife.
Texas couple Walter Brown and his wife Lanie are familiar with the US Marines, as Brown had previously served his country, and his son-in-law had, too.
One day they decided to visit a local flea market and were on the lookout for something specific. But they had never expected to find something as monumental as this.
The owner of the flea market, Fred Yahne, buys his wares from storage crates and then sells their contents. One day as he was unpacking the boxes he had just acquired, he noticed something unusual.
He carefully placed it on a table, intending to inspect it further later. Little did he know that he was setting the stage for an incredible story.
“I didn’t know what it was when I was processing the boxes,” Yahne explained later, “I really wanted to see what it was.”
But then, he was distracted by the throng of people who were starting to arrive at the stall, and his wife began to sell the goods off, one by one. His unusual find lay on the table, forgotten.
Walter Brown was browsing idly through the market when he suddenly noticed something. There on the table, was a stack of folded American flags, so he motioned to his wife to come and look.
As he rifled through the flags, something caught his eye. One of them looked a little different from the others. When he saw why he was overcome with sadness.
The flag had writing on it, and when Brown read what it said, he knew he had to buy it and take it home. Lanie agreed as soon as she read the messages that were scrawled on it, too.
The price tag on the flag said that it could be theirs for $15, but when the seller saw that it had been defaced with ink, he lowered the price to just $5.
The Browns took their find home and unfurled it on the table to read what was written on it. Then, the words “lance corporal” caught their full attention.
“The rank is specific to the Marines, that’s what caught our eye,” Lanie recalls. As they looked closer, it slowly started to dawn on them what they were looking at.
“Fred, you were a good Marine and we will always remember you,” one message said. Another read “Hey CHEEKS, wherever you are, make sure you watch over us.”
All the messages were addressed to someone named Fred. But what did it mean? And why had people written messages on an American flag? Their son-in-law had all the answers.
Brown’s son-in-law explained that what they had bought at the flea market was a “tribute flag” that had been signed by the other members of the unit.
It was a tribute to a lance corporal who had fallen, and his name had been Fred. Brown was crestfallen. Who was the rightful owner of this flag? Surely it belonged with the fallen hero’s family? And then, he knew just what he had to do.
Walter and Lanie started to make plans to get the flag back to the soldier’s family — it was an enormous endeavor.
How would they find the rightful owners? They then decided to enlist their tech-savvy daughter’s help. Catie began to search on social media for the soldier’s family, but it was like looking for a needle in a haystack.
Then, one day, Catie found a woman named Patsy Maciel, and to her great delight, she turned out to be the mother of Fred, who had had the tribute flag made in his honor.
She explained that she had never wanted for Fred to become a Marine, but he had enlisted anyway. “I cried for three days trying to convince him not to (join)… I lost that fight,” she said tearfully.
“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,” Maciel said.
It was in 2013 when tragedy struck for Fred while he was stationed in Iraq. He was only 20 years old. Maciel was awakened by her mother after she had seen the terrible news on television.
Her mother had seen on the news that a helicopter that had been carrying servicemen had crashed outside of Baghdad in an enormous sandstorm.
Then Maciel heard a knock on her door, and she was told the devastating news. “For eight years, I was a basket case,” Maciel said. “I didn’t know how to go on without my son.”
Maciel was sent her son’s personal belongings, but there was one crucial item that had been missing — the tribute flag. It is unclear how the flag went missing, but then, 9 years later, Maciel received the message from Catie asking for her phone number.
Maciel recalls the subsequent phone call. “She said I have something of Fred’s I want to give you.”
The Browns even drove to Fred’s grave at Calvary Hill Cemetery in Texas to give her the flag in person. “I could have mailed it to you and put it in a box, but I wanted to meet you,” Catie said.
All of Fred’s friends and family were there, too, and Maciel was astounded to see that there were Patriot Guard Riders and Marines present to salute her.
When the Browns presented the flag to Maciel, Lanie said to 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 watched on tearfully, and later he said that it was an honor to be able to give such an important piece of Fred’s history back to his mother.
“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,” Maciel told US Today, overcome with emotion and gratitude.
At the reunion, there wasn’t one dry eye there as they all paid tribute to Fred the fallen hero. Maciel was overwhelmed by the support, compassion, and love that was displayed on that day, as her son was given the memorial he so deserved.
The twist of fate that brought the tribute flag back to her 9 years later is a truly incredible story.
Fred’s cousin, Lee Nelson, expressed his gratitude to have the flag back, too. “It was amazing to come to my family like this. It’s funny how things work out,” he said.
All because Walter and his wife had been browsing a flea market and happened to come across the flag. Walter intuitively knew that it was something special the moment he saw it.
Because of the Browns’ determination, they had managed to restore something to Fred’s mother that she thought was lost forever, and in doing so, they had also united two families. Patsy and Lanie have remained good friends.
“I was real blessed that both of my boys came home in one piece and I have a huge responsibility to her,” Lanie explained. It just goes to show that there are good people in the world, and that sometimes the stars align to bring them together.