In July of 2001, Chris Heisler was a civilian who was all but unknown to the law enforcement community. His name was rarely — if ever — mentioned in public safety circles. But because of some work he had quietly done in his role as Vice President of the American Lung Association in Houston, Texas, he was contacted by the Anchorage Police Department with a request: Could he help organize a memorial for a Houston native who was killed in the line of duty in Anchorage. Officer Justin Wollam had been killed when his patrol car was struck head-on by a vehicle being driven by a drunk driver.
“I was contacted by the Anchorage Police Department in July 2001,” Heisler told me during a phone conversation we had in late January 2011. “There was a police officer there who was killed in the line of duty who was actually born and raised in Angleton Texas, a city just south of Houston. I grew up in Anchorage, Alaska and the police chief there was a good friend of my dad. He contacted me and asked if I help them coordinate with some of the agencies in Houston.”
Heisler told me that he really didn’t know what to do or how to do it, so he contacted a woman with whom he’d worked at the American Lung Association — she is a survivor whose husband was a law enforcer killed in the line of duty.
“She put me in touch with all the different honor guard teams in South Texas and we were able to do something pretty extravagant and nice for this officer coming in from Alaska — so much so that we actually had a vehicle with all the graphics for Anchorage exactly like his vehicle. When the airplane taxied in, the family saw the Texas State Troopers and all the other agencies, and in front of all those vehicles they saw the Anchorage police vehicle. We took that officer to Angleton and did the right thing for that fallen hero. Well, this officer was a member of the FOP up there in Anchorage and soon afterward I was contacted by the National FOP saying thank you for what I had done. I explained to them that I’d do it anytime for one of their fallen brothers.”
We Will Never Forget
Then, September 11th happened. We solemnly remember that among the nearly 3,000 Americans to be murdered by 19 al Qaeda terrorists that day, were 23 New York Police Department officers and 37 Port Authority officers.
“I was contacted again by the FOP. They invited me to help coordinate and do some of the same things I did for this officer from Alaska, to help the families there in New York. Of course, I didn’t say no.”
Heisler contacted a number of the agencies with whom he’d worked to back in July — among them, the Texas State Troopers who put him in touch with the Sergeant at Arms of the Texas State Capitol. Heisler indicated that he’d be willing to cover all the expenses for any officers to go to New York to “do something for the folks out there.”
The Sergeant at Arms circulated that message to law enforcement agencies throughout the Lone Star State, and before he knew it, the Texas House of Representatives was presenting Heisler with a Texas State Flag as well as the very same United States Flag that had flown over the capitol building in Austin on September 11th. “I never asked for it or expected anything like it,” Heisler told me as I prepared this column. He was merely doing what he could — what he felt he must — to honor those who perished on 9/11.
Well, that same American flag is now the United States Honor Flag, and its incredible journey has taken it to places like Ground Zero in New York, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Memorial, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, Camp Victory and Camp Anaconda in Iraq, the Presidential Libraries for Presidents Herbert Hoover, William Jefferson Clinton, and George Herbert Walker Bush. It has also been a central element to countless memorials for police officers killed in the line of duty across the country over the past decade.
Rally Point, Independence
The fact that the ongoing journey of the United States Honor Flag began in Independence (Mo.) is not merely fitting, it’s beautiful. Operation Enduring Freedom had already begun when representatives from police agencies from as far away as Hawaii and Alaska rallied up in Independence and began one of the largest and longest police motorcades in the history of the United States. From his seat the vehicle he had marked with the Anchorage PD paint scheme, Heisler had to phone ahead along the way to accommodate for everything from bathroom breaks to petrol refills — the line of vehicles was simply too big to just drop in at roadside gas stations.
“It’s not very often they close the Holland Tunnel, but they closed it for us,” Heisler told me. Upon their arrival in New York in early November, a ceremony was held at One Police Plaza in Manhattan, and another held at the still-smoldering site of the World Trade Center. “They ground was still hot,” Heisler explained.
“If you remember, after 9/11 you couldn’t even buy an American flag — the spirit of patriotism in this country was so incredible that you had to have someone color a flag for you or print one out if you wanted one. I had that American flag with me that I got from Texas and we used that during some of the memorial services we did at Ground Zero. We did a ceremony at the Continental Airlines hangar at Newark Airport, and we had tables set up where officers from across the country put their patches and pins and other things to give to the surviving families to let them know that there are people around the country were thinking about them. Of course, I’m a civilian — I don’t have a badge or a patch or anything like that. So put the Texas flag and the American flag on one of the tables for some family to take with them.”
Like his financial support for officers making the cross-country trek with him, Heisler’s generosity was — and is to this day — heartfelt, honest, and without expectation of recognition or return. Those flags were what he had to give, so he gave them without hesitation.
It was at this point in Heisler’s retelling of the story that I was struck by something my dad had instilled in me as a very young man: “Expect nothing and you’ll never be disappointed.” As you might rightly predict, Heisler’s magnanimity was almost immediately rewarded.
“I’ll never forget, a widow of a Port Authority officer came to me and she expressed her appreciation for bringing all the officers there to remember their fallen heroes. I said, ‘Your husband is a hero, and we’ll never forget the sacrifices that he and all the other men and women made. They ran into the danger and we’ll never forget that.’ She said, ‘People are flying their flags now, but they’re going to take them down — they’re going to forget.’ In her arms were the Texas Flag and the American Flag I’d put on the table. She handed me the U.S. flag and said, ‘Chris, just keep flying this flag’.”
That’s precisely what Heisler did.
April of 2003, Heisler enlisted in the United States Army and in 2004 he was deployed to Iraq. He took the flag with him, and there it was flown at reenlistment and promotion ceremonies as well as memorials for fallen warriors. It even flew with Air Force pilots who took it on combat missions with them. However, during his tour in Iraq Heisler suffered a stroke and was sent to Germany for rehabilitation. When he finally arrived home in Texas, he got the flag back and started sending it to ceremonies held at various military installations here in the States.
Then, in September of 2007, the path and the destiny of the United States Honor Flag would be forever reshaped by events in Odessa, Texas. There, Corporal Arlie Jones, Corporal Scott Gardner, and Corporal Abel Marquez were shot and killed when they responded to a domestic violence call.
“There were some military personnel up there who knew about the flag and they contacted me to ask if the flag was available. I said ‘Absolutely, let me see how I can get it there.’ We contacted an airline that was flying nonstop from Austin to Odessa and we were able to work with them. They agreed that the pilot would carry the flag in a special case in the cockpit.”
When that aircraft arrived in Odessa, officers and Honor Guard from across North Texas were arrayed across the airport apron, with airport fire personnel showering the plane with water. “None of that stuff was planned on our end, but from that moment on, our world completely changed. The flag went from Odessa to Fort Lauderdale for a ceremony in Broward County, and then on to Miami, and then on to Tampa, and it hasn’t stopped since.”
Heisler and his wife Tammy then created the Honor Network, which helps to ensure that the mission of the United States Honor Flag continues. As its website says, the Honor Network is a 501.C.3 non-profit organization “dedicated to memorializing those Heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice for their family, community and country. It also serves to foster education of the American public regarding all Heroes, past and present, and their organizations, including police, fire, and our nation’s military.”
2011 and the 10-Year Anniversary of 9/11
The United States Honor Flag has flown for more than 1,000 fallen warriors. It is one single flag — not a set of flags bearing one name. It has been flown at countless sporting events of the NFL, NHL, and NBA.
Because of the amount of respect that this flag gets, the Department of Homeland Security has sewn microchips into the seam of the flag — with those chips, it can be scanned to verify its authenticity. It’s got a custom-built case in which the flag can be securely transported. The Honor Network has partnered with American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and Citation Air, a private jet service that is at the ready whenever the flag needs to go someplace that cannot be immediately or easily accommodated by American or Southwest.
The flag will soon embark on another cross-country trek to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the September 11th attacks.
“Detective Alvaro Zabaleta of the Miami-Dade Police Department is leading the charge. The flag will go on a motorcade from Sandy Hook in California, across the country, and end its tour in New York on 9/11. The Port Authority will host the flag. They can fly the flag or present the flag or whatever they want to do with the flag — it will be their flag that day.”
Between now and then, however, the United States Honor Flag will continue to move wherever the friends and family of a fallen warrior request it.
The men and women here at PoliceOne — and the folks at the Honor Network — certainly hope that the number of police officer memorial services at which the flag is delivered is significantly reduced, because so far this year the flag has been on the move altogether too much.
If you would like to learn more about the United States Honor Flag or make a donation to the Honor Network, you can visit them online at http://www.ushonorflag.org/.