Photos, medals, dog tags, unit patches and sometimes even a pair of dirty combat boots – these are just a few of the items kept as mementos by the families of Veterans who have passed away. These items hold special meaning for those who receive them after a Veteran is gone, but perhaps one of the most significant items kept in memory of a Veteran is the folded American flag presented to a service member’s loved ones during a burial or funeral service.
The U.S. flag serves as a symbol of appreciation for their loved one’s honorable and faithful service. To say that such examples of Old Glory are sometimes regarded as family treasures would be considered an understatement by some, for their intrinsic value is only limited by the people and legacy left behind.
With a heavy heart and tears running down her face, Judith Casselberry opened her arms to receive a folded American flag in the summer of 2006 – the year she witnessed her daughter, Christine Marie Casselberry, being buried at her final resting place in Fremont, Nebraska. Her daughter’s flag would serve as a reminder of Christine’s military service.
Photo of Christine Casselberry wearing dress blues as an enlisted Air Force basic trainee taken at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, between December 1989 and February 1990. (Image courtesy of Mick Casselberry)
“I guess you could say Chris was both a tomboy and somewhat of a free spirit,” said Michael Casselberry, about his sister growing up. “She was not your typical girl especially having been raised in a house filled with boys.”
Michael, called Mick by his family and friends, said Christine showed desire to serve her country from an early age. Christine was in the civil air patrol during her high school years and wanted to become an Air Force pilot.
“I remember Chris telling us that she didn’t pass the vision test to go on and pursue a career as a pilot in the Air Force, so she opted for a career in the medical field instead,” said Mick. “No matter what happened with her original plans she wanted to serve our country. Chris joined the military shortly after graduating high school.”
Christine’s desire translated into a career longer than that of her father Theodore P. Casselberry, an Army Veteran who served in the Vietnam War.
According to records from the Air Force’s Personnel Center, the former noncommissioned officer entered active duty on Dec.13, 1989. She went on to train and become an aerospace medical service specialist. As an enlisted medical professional, Christine provided essential care in multiple medical roles, assisting doctors and caring for patients in a wide range of situations. From administering immunizations to assisting in aeromedical evacuations. She would serve her fellow Airmen and their families at various military installation around the globe to include Lajes Field, her last duty station in the southeastern European country of Portugal. There she would hold the duty title of medical service craftsman prior to separating from the Air Force on January 26, 2004, but not before being awarded an Air Force Achievement Medal three times.
Christine returned stateside after more than 14 years of service. She wanted to continue to help people, so she took the experience and skills she had gained in the military and began working as an emergency medical technician aboard an ambulance.
Unfortunately, Christine’s life would be cut short at age of 35. The girl who had spent almost half her life helping others as an Air Force medic and EMT died of internal bleeding due to a brain aneurysm.
“My mother was devastated,” said Mick. “I remember her crying and trembling as she reached for my sister’s flag and embraced it onto her chest.”
The flag would later be placed inside a triangular wooden framed shadow box made by Christine’s brother, Casey. It would remain under the care of her mother Judy for more than six years until her passing in 2012. Casey and Mick’s older half-brother Rick Stevens offered to take care of the flag. Rick died a few years later and his wife Carla became the care taker of the flag.
It was sometime shortly after Rick passed that Carla relocated to Corpus Christi, Texas.
“Carla had some medical issues and moved to Texas to be near family members who agreed to help her with her conditions,” said Mick. “Carla was eventually moved to a nursing home and she could not take all her belongings due to space restrictions.Carla had left the flag behind hoping it would how make its way back to our family.”
An undated photo of Air Force Veteran Christine Casselberry wearing a battle dress uniform (BDU) and stethoscope while posing next to some medical equipment. (Image courtesy of Mick Casselberry)
Neither Mick or anyone of his remaining brothers knew what happened to Chris’s flag after Carla moved to the nursing home.
It wasn’t until March of this year that the flag reappeared. Seth Smith a medical equipment repair technician was the first VA employee to make contact with the flag.
“A friend of mine who is a foreman with Cubit Contracting called me up about finding a burial flag left behind at a site they were working on,” said Smith. “He said no one there knew who it belonged to, so he asked me if he could bring it to the VA because he believed it more than likely belonged to the family of a Veteran.”
The foreman brought the flag to Smith who decided to temporarily to store the it inside the office of VA bio med technician Ruben Reyes.
On March 28, logistics supply technicians Alfredo Cavazos and Joseph Ramos from the VA Texas Valley Coastal Bend Health Care System traveled to Corpus Christi from the VA health care center at Harlingen, Texas, in order to do inventory on equipment that that had recently been moved to the Corpus Christi Outpatient Clinic. The clinic recently reopened after being closed for seven months due to severe damage caused by Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
It was while they were taking inventory of the equipment in Reyes’s office that they first noticed the flag.
“We asked what was deal with the flag,” said Cavazos. “Mr. Reyes explained that someone had brought it in to the VA not knowing who it belonged to.”
The two VA logistics workers left the clinic with Christine’s flag on their mind. It wasn’t till they returned to their office in Harlingen that Cavazos and Ramos began to contemplate if they could do something to figure out who the flag belonged to.
“Joseph remembered seeing the note taped to the back of the case that the flag was in,” said Cavazos. “I told him you should Google some of the information on the back and who knows maybe you get lucky and find out more information about who it belongs to.”
With the encouragement of his coworker and fellow Navy Veteran, Ramos called Reyes and asked him to take a photo of the sheet of paper located on the back of the case.
Ramos noticed the words, “Dugan Funeral Chapel Fremont, Nebraska” on the page and decided to look up the phone number online.
Ramos said he found the number to the funeral home rather quickly. The funeral home then helped by putting him contact with Mick who was listed as the point of contact for the family of Judith Lynn Casselberry the large name that appeared on the paper that had been taped to the back of the flag case.
“I was shocked when I talked to Joseph and learned that the VA had found my sister’s flag,” said Mick. The paper was the program the funeral home prepared for my mother’s funeral,” said Mick. “It was my brother Rick who had taped it on there.”
Ramos wrote down Mick’s address and told him he would try to send the flag to him as soon as possible, but it was still at the Corpus Christi Outpatient Clinic more than 130 miles away from his office.
Using both his hands, VA logistics supply technician Joseph Ramos carefully holds up the long, lost encased memorial U.S. flag of Air Force Veteran Christine M. Casselberry on April 6, 2018, prior to preparing it for shipment to her family in Nebraska. (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs photo by Luis H. Loza Gutierrez)
Ramos shared the story about Christine’s flag with his supervisor and Marine Corps Veteran Roberto Rangel, who praised Ramos for taking the initiative to search for the female Veteran’s family and told Ramos that he did not have to worry about paying to for the flag’s delivery to Mick’s home approximately 1,200 miles away. The VA would help cover the cost and ship the flag to Christine’s brother.
The flag would need to exchange hands a few more times before Mick would see his sister’s long-lost flag in person.
VA driver Rick Garcia helped by stopping by the outpatient clinic and picking it up while delivering supplies between the Corpus Christi and Harlingen VA medical facilities.
On April 6, 2018, Christine’s flag was carefully wrapped up and packaged by Ramos and Arturo Garza, another coworker from the logistics department. VA materials handler Mike Gesualdi processed the shipment, but not before including a greeting card signed by Ramos and other VA employees from the logistics department that had come to know the story. The cover on the card fittingly read, “One good person can touch more hearts than we will ever know.”
The flag arrived at Mick’s doorstep on April 11, but it was still in danger of being lost once again, only this time it was mother nature not the negligence of people that posed a threat.
Christine’s brother said he was out of town and that heavy showers were predicted for the day the package with the flag was scheduled to arrive.
“I knew the package could potentially be exposed to the rain and damaged if left outside,” said Mick. “So, I called a friend to help.”
That friend turned out to be Mick’s coworker and fellow United States Postal Service mailman Joe Wieser, who agreed to stop by the home and put the flag in the garage where it would be safe.
Opening the package was an emotional moment for Mick.
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Mick said he has occasionally heard of stories of different people being reunited with heirlooms and precious mementos passed throughout family generations, but he never imagined his family would be so fortunate.
“I thought we would never see Chris’ flag again,” said the proud brother of the Airman. “It must have been faith for things to happen as they did. I mean it is really amazing if you stop and think about what are the chances that my brother would have the presence of mind to tape that funeral program on the back of that flag case all those years ago, and then have that flag exchange hands that many times and be found more than 1,100 miles away.”
Mick is not the only person surprised and excited about having Christine’s flag back with the family.
“My son Austin, who is away attending school at Wayne State College, was excited to learn the good news about the flag,” said Mick. “He was close to his Aunt Chris and would ask her a lot of questions about her time in the Air Force when he was just a kid.”
Photo of Air Force Staff Sgt. Christine M. Casselberry’s gravestone marker located in a cemetery in Fremont, Nebraska. The marker shows the words Iraq and medical corps indicating she was in the medical field as an Airman and served during the Persian Gulf War, which lasted from August 2, 1990 to February 28, 1991. (Image courtesy of Mick Casselberry)
Mick said his older half-brother Don Stevens has children of his own and he hopes to share the flag and the story behind it with them as well.
In the mean time Staff Sgt. Christine M. Casselberry’s flag remains carefully and proudly displayed on the mantel inside the home of her brother Michael who had one final thing to say to Joseph Ramos and his fellow VA coworkers.
“It was a miracle that this flag was returned to our family,” said Mick. “I know my mother would be both happy and proud to see it under our care once again. It is a true blessing indeed, and it is thanks to the integrity and selfless efforts of nice people like you that my sister’s flag was finally able to return home.”
When asked; why did you go out of your way to find the family this flag belonged to, Ramos said, “It was simply the right thing to do. Alfredo and I both served in the Navy and Christine was as in the Air Force, but our branch of service doesn’t matter because at the end of the day we are all Veterans and she is still our sister-in-arms. She served her country and this flag is a symbol of that service and sacrifice. Her family rightfully deserves to have it with them.”
Writer’s note: Special thanks to Kat Bailey and the public affairs office at the Air Force’s Personnel Center for their assistance with details mentioned in this article.