Oct. 26, 2019

Tribune Photos/Joey Hedges Debbie Deatherage and Col. James Tobin

By Layne Stracener
Tribune staff writer

After hearing about veterans’ burial flags commonly getting lost, one veteran came up with a solution – and one local business was eager to help.

Col. James Tobin, the Military Order of the World Wars (MOWW) senior vice president and Disabled American Veteran member, presented a certificate of appreciation to Santa Fe Glass Branch Manager Debbie Deatherage on Oct. 23. Tobin is an Iraqi combat veteran who received the Bronze Star Medal for his service.

LTC. Vern Austin, Debbie Deatherage, and Dan Donovan

The certificate, presented at Santa Fe Glass (1328 S.W. Market St.), is signed by Tobin and MOWW member LTC. Vern Austin and recognizes Santa Fe Glass’s contribution of glass for burial flag cases.

Austin said he learned to love the American flag when he was a child.

“When I was a kid going to small schools in Montana, we went out and ran the flag up every morning, took the flag down every night after school and said the Pledge of Allegiance,” Austin said.

When Austin was serving in the Vietnam War, he witnessed his fellow serviceman get killed. He had the difficult responsibility of bringing his body back to his home in Alabama. Austin said the process of draping the burial flag over the casket was emotional for him.

“It’s a very detailed protocol situation,” Austin said. “Lots of dignity and respect. And it was very, very touching. As a matter of fact, it’s difficult for me to even tell you – I don’t tell this story to anybody, really. That was my first real experience with what the flag really meant.”

During the funeral, Austin presented the burial flag to his fellow serviceman’s widow. About a year later, she told him that she had the flag somewhere, but she wasn’t sure where.

About a year and-a-half-ago, a woman told Austin that her father was a veteran, but she didn’t remember where she put his burial flag.

“I thought, ‘This is probably a pretty typical scenario of what happens to these flags,’” Austin said. “They get presented in a very dignified, respectable way, but then what do you do with a flag that’s 9 ½ feet long and 5 feet wide?”

After thinking about it, an idea came to Austin’s mind – flag cases to display the flags. He began making one, telling himself he could do it. But when he got to the part where he had to cut the glass, he realized he had no way to do it.

Austin went to several local glass companies for help, but they said they weren’t interested in the project.

“Then, I wandered into (Santa Fe Glass), and the motto was ‘Everything in glass,’ so I thought, ‘This has to be the place,’” Austin said.

Austin gave Deatherage a brief explanation of what he had in mind, and she immediately said she can help.

Deatherage said she was happy to cut the glass for the flag cases and didn’t expect anything in return.

“It’s just kind of in my heart to do anything for the veterans – anybody that has served our country,” Deatherage said.

Austin said Santa Fe Glass’s decision to cut the glass for the flag cases means a lot to him and the people who will receive them. The motto for the MOWW, a nonprofit Veterans Service Organization, is “It is nobler to serve than to be served.”

“In this particular case, we are the receiving end – and we thank you for that,” Austin said. “It’s been a pleasure.”