Mike Morris received a phone call early this month.
On the other end of the line was Amanda McMahan, who had flown with Morris in the Tennessee Air National Guard and with whom Morris kept in regular contact.
McMahan’s name had popped up in an online alert system as being mentioned in a published story.
She checked into the story, from The Star, which listed her among names found on a flag separated from its owner during Hurricane Michael.
“She said, ‘I think they found your Tennessee state flag,’” Morris said last week as he was reunited with the flag by members South Gulf County Volunteer Fire and Rescue.
“I hadn’t really thought a lot about it (since the storm). I figured it was gone.”
That the flag and owner found each other is a rather circuitous and amazing tale.
It began in mid-October.
Dave Motil with the South Gulf fire department was working road duty in the days immediately after Hurricane Michael, monitoring traffic on and off St. Joseph Peninsula, assisting those trying to get back on the Cape and peninsula.
“I talked to just about everybody who came up,” Motil said. “One day a car came up and the people said they had found this flag in a ditch and what should they do with it.”
Motil said he would try to identify the owner.
“Among firefighters we say we don’t just put out fires, we bring communities together,” Motil said.
Along the spine of the flag, written in marker, were more than a dozen names with ranks, clearly marking with some sort of military connection.
Motil went on Facebook trying to link any names, found one, but received no response.
Leads ran dry.
So, Motil turned to this newspaper and two weeks ago we published a story about the lost flag.
The response was, quite frankly, stunning.
The day the story was first posted on Facebook, a caller suggested we check with the Air National Guard out of Utah.
Two other messages and an email pointed in the same direction.
As it would turn out, Morris said those were not bad leads given the flights he was a part of, as we shall explain shortly.
Several others, by email or phone, suggested reaching out to the Tennessee Air National Guard in Nashville.
A couple of responders provided specific names and phone numbers.
One thing became evident; those in the Air National Guard, an all-volunteer branch, are close and generally remain close.
“Air National Guardsmen are a tight bunch,” wrote Shawn Heckman, another officer whose name was on the flag.
The day of McMahan’s call to Morris, a week after the story was first published, Morris called the newspaper.
“I think you found my flag,” he said. “That flag has been all around the world with me. Wherever I flew, it went with me.”
And, fly he did, including five tours in Afghanistan, three tours in Iraq, 28 years in the air with the U.S. Air Force and then Tennessee Air National Guard.
One of the many strange twists: while he flew with the Tennessee Air National Guard, Morris was raised in Miami.
In any case, his missions in Iraq and Afghanistan were highly classified and involved “scouting” for all airwave and radio traffic in sectors of war zones.
Hence the connection with Salt Lake City, Morris said: Utah is home of the Mormons and Mormons perform missions throughout the world.
Therefore there is a significant wealth of institutional knowledge about a host of languages in Utah, and in turn, the Utah Air National Guard.
When Morris said he has flown around the world, he noted that one of the flights in his nearly three-decade career circled, literally, the globe.
The day of McMahan’s phone call to Morris, an email arrived at the newspaper from Heckman, who had worked in military intelligence and provided the dates (2005-2009) and location (Afghanistan) the flag had likely been signed.
All of which was confirmed when Morris, a pilot for Delta after his 2010 retirement from the Air National Guard, came into the newspaper’s office to see the flag draped on a wall.
“I kept this and an American flag in my helmet bag whenever I flew,” Morris said. “I never thought I’d see it again.
“This is very much a special flag to me.”
As the story unfurled, Morris explained that he and his wife live along U.S. 98 in Port St. Joe and his home was destroyed in Hurricane Michael.
Like so many other items, his treasured helmet bag and the flags were gone.
One day, about a week or so after the storm, Morris received a call from Europe.
Call letters had been broadcast on a military channel indicating that the American flag had been found.
The flag was discovered by members of the Manatee County Fire Department, in the area to assist in storm response.
By another one of those twists only life can throw, the East Manatee County Fire Department was staged with the South Gulf Fire and Rescue in the days after the storm.
In any case, the call from Europe led to a reunion not only with the American flag, but his wife’s shadow box filled with the medals and ribbons she had earned during her stint in the military as well as Morris’ training wings.
And in another bit of a happy coincidence, providing even more meaning to the flag return, Morris flew C-130s, nicknamed the Hercules, in Iraq and Afghanistan; Motil had a squadron of C-130s in Thailand during his stint in Vietnam.
Now reunited, Morris and flag are probably soon to be separated again, he said.
He will likely send it to Nashville to be part of a museum dedicated to the Tennessee Air National Guard.