Sending Old Glory abroad becomes military duty for 'Army mom'

Sunday, August 25, 2002

BENTON, Mo. -- Somewhere in Afghanistan, Carol Messmer's U.S. flag is flying over her daughter's Army base.

What began as a birthday gift to her husband has become a mission to show support to the military's men and women by sending them flags as keepsakes of their tours of duty.

Messmer sent a flag to the U.S. Army asking for it to be flown at her daughter's base as a 60th birthday gift to her husband, Walter, an Army veteran of the Vietnam War.

The couple's daughter, Rebecca Nickell, 23, is a second lieutenant in the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, serving as platoon leader of a supply company stationed in Afghanistan. She is a fourth-generation member of her family to serve in a combat zone during a time of war.

After Nickell received the flag from her mother, she gained permission from her commanding officer to fly the flag on the base.

Shortly after midnight on his birthday last week, Nickell called her father to say a flag had been raised at her base in his honor and is planned to be flown there until another arrives to replace it.

"To say the least, I was very pleased and surprised," he said. "It's very hard to arrange something like that."

Once the flag was raised, a senior officer in the division asked Carol Messmer to seek other Americans who would send flags as mementos of their dedication.

The retired home economics teacher has since organized "Operation U.S. Flags." Because the campaign is a recent idea, most of the troops aren't aware of what is being organized in their honor, she said.

"I would hope that organizations would be encouraged to participate, as well as individuals and schools," Carol Messmer said.

Though she was unable to find any elected officials who were available to help, the military is cooperating with Messmer's effort by distributing the flags. She has since handled the campaign as a grassroots effort by putting the call for help to friends and family through e-mails and letters.

Tight security

Originally, the flag campaign was envisioned with citizens sending two flags, with one flag to be presented to a service member and the second to be flown at a base in Afghanistan and then returned shortly afterward to the person who sent it. However, returning the flags involved detailed planning, and tight security concerns outweighed the probability that such an idea would work.

"These people are living in a relatively primitive area, so it would be a logistical nightmare to send the flags back," Walter Messmer said.

Typically, it takes two to three weeks for mail to arrive to the bases from the United States, and frequent communication is not always possible.

Though their daughter is overseas, the Messmer's son-in-law, Shawn Nickell, is stationed at the U.S. Army's Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

The messages and phone calls from their daughter also come with several security restrictions. Service members cannot give the names of their colleagues, discuss assignments, or mention location names or troop movements.

"Basically all we can talk about with our daughter is the weather," Carol Messmer said. "We talk about how it's so hot and dry, and we talk about the dust. They live, eat and sleep dust deep."

Devoted Army mom

"Operation U.S. Flags" is another example of Carol Messmer's longtime devotion to recognizing military service members. Before retiring from Sikeston Middle School after 26 years of teaching, she helped students send posters with names and greetings to military serving in Operation Desert Storm.

She also has corresponded with three soldiers who were stationed in Afghanistan who had not received any mail or contact from their family or friends. An Army officer from Fort Campbell, Ky., gave Messmer the names and addresses because she volunteered to become a correspondent.

"Carol kind of adopted these three people," Walter Messmer said. "It's sad to think there are folks serving over there and no one is sending them a thing."

At the Messmer's home outside Benton, they proudly fly another U.S. flag, along with the 82nd Airborne flag and an Army banner. The latter two have been on the pole since mid-July and will continue to be flown until U.S. military return from Afghanistan.

Walter Messmer appreciates how his birthday present will become a greater gift to soldiers and their families.

"For them to bring home their own flag without it being laid out on top of their coffin would be a wonderful thing," he said.

mwells@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 160

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