Lost and found: Veteran's family gets back the flag of their father

The U.S. flag that draped the casket of Thomas Elwin Elmore has been on quite an adventure.  If only it could talk.

"I thought it was one place and it ended up being another place," said his son, Carl Elmore, of his father’s flag.  In that other place, it was moments from getting shredded and lost forever.

It is a story that begins with the passing of Thomas Elmore on December 12th, 2022. Elmore served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War.

"He didn’t know how to swim very much, but he did it," Carl recalled of his father’s improbable entrance into the Navy.

Carl said his father did not see combat, but ran a Navy supply store, skills that he applied to running retail businesses later in life.

"He did his time, he served his country," Carl proudly said of his father’s four-year naval career. "I'm still very proud of him. I miss my dad. He's a good man."

At Thomas’ funeral at Fort Snelling National Cemetery, a military honor guard gave him a 21-gun salute and then carefully folded his burial flag and presented it to Carl.

"That was a great honor. I mean, I have never seen myself getting something like that," recalled Carl of receiving his father’s flag.

Family tragedy strikes

But not long after the funeral, life for Carl and his wife Lisa took an unforeseen turn.  A fire destroyed a good portion of their house and they were forced to move themselves and what little of their belongings they could save.

Carl placed in a black backpack his father’s folded flag along with a zipped bag of three spent rifle cartridges from his 21-gun salute, and a certificate to the family from President Joe Biden.  He put the pack in the back of a barely working spare car and drove it to West St. Paul to park it on the street near his son’s house. 

There it sat parked, until the city thought it was abandoned and ordered it towed.  It was the last Carl saw of the father’s flag, but its journey was far from over.

Unexpected discovery

Sixty miles away and many months later, the rotating teeth of a giant industrial shredder at EMR Northern Metal Recycling ripped through a stack of discarded appliances, scrap metal, and once-loved automobiles.

Before the cars meet their final demise, they get inspected by Michael Harris, who’s appropriately called an end-of-life vehicle operator.  He’s the guy who effectively gives the car its last rites before it’s condemned to the teeth of the shredder. 

Actually, it’s a critically important job.  Harris makes sure the vehicles are drained and stripped of contaminants and flammables before they enter the scrap pile. Upwards of 600 vehicles a day are lifted from the pile and into the teeth of the shredder.

"So, we look at them pretty good," said Harris as he walked to a stack of vehicles he just finished inspecting and recalling the story about an unusual discovery he had recently made.

Jake Hansen saved the flag (FOX 9)

"It was actually back here," he said of the object he found in the back of an SUV.  "It was actually pretty easy to find. It was like right here."

It was a black backpack.

"I knew right away it's something I had to turn in," said Harris. So he gathered up everything he found and took it to his site manager, Jake Hansen.

"It had a certificate with the president's signature on it, the three-gun salute , and the folded flag, all nice and uniform back together," said Hansen of the backpack's contents.  "I knew right away it had to belong to a family that we needed to get it back to."

The certificate of appreciation from President Biden for service to the United States was addressed to the family of Thomas Elwin Elmore Jr.  A simple internet search by Hansen revealed the funeral home of Elmore’s service, and a phone call put him in touch with the family.

(FOX 9)

Finding Carl Elmore

"I don't know how they found me, but thank God they did," said an elated Carl Elmore. "I thank God they did."

"Just the reaction of the son and his wife when we called them. It was almost emotional," recalled Hansen of finally getting in touch with Carl Elmore.

Carl is a veteran himself of the U.S. Air Force. He too served under the U.S. flag and is happy to finally have back the one belonging to his father.  It now sits still neatly folded where he can see it every day.

"I'll never lose it again. It has a permanent home right near my window," said Elmore."

It’s the journey of a flag that can’t talk but tells quite a story.

"It's kind of the icing on the cake," said Hansen recalling the satisfaction of helping a family of veterans.  "We get to do this every single day and it's because of our veterans that protect our right and freedom to be able to do what we love to do every day," said Hansen.