What looked like an ordinary U.S. flag folded tightly into a triangle actually has “easily” thousands of miles on it, according to the man who carried it with him on 40 combat missions in Afghanistan last year.
Staff Sgt. Tyler Haigh, who is approaching his eighth year of service in the U.S. Air Force, toted the flag into Central High School on Wednesday afternoon as a gift to the school he graduated from in 2012. Mike Yew, who coached Haigh on the football field while the latter was in high school, said the flag would be displayed outside Central’s gymnasium, likely next to the school’s trophy case.
It will be the final stop for a flag that Haigh said made the trek with him to every corner of Afghanistan during his four-month deployment to the Middle East from March to June 2020.
“I actually carried this in my backpack that I carried with me on every single flight over there,” said Haigh, 27, who is stationed at Hurlburt Field in Florida and is home on leave until this weekend. “I did 40 flights. It flew everywhere.”
Haigh said the flag he presented to Central administrators – Principal Lori Swortzel and Athletic Director Justin Broughman joined Yew in greeting Haigh upon his return to the school on Wednesday – was one of four he’d purchased at a troop store while stationed in Afghanistan last year.
He’d purchased American flags before to serve as mementos, but Haigh, who serves on a security escort team tasked with ensuring cargo and personnel are safely transported to and from military aircraft, had given those to other air crews to carry with them on missions before they were returned to him. The four flags Haigh obtained last year he carried himself, each folded tightly and placed in the bottom of his backpack underneath his equipment.
Those four, he said, mean a bit more than the others. He kept one for himself, gave a couple to family and decided he’d present the fourth to his alma mater and his former high school football coach.
“It helped me kind of grow up as a person doing that,” Haigh said of playing football for the Falcons, “so I figured it was good to kind of give back.”
Accompanying the flag Haigh gifted to Central is a certificate of authenticity, which certifies that the flag was “carried over and on Afghanistan in support of 40 combat missions” while assigned to the Combined Joint Special Operations Air Component-Afghanistan from March 13, 2020, to July 17, 2020. The certificate also states: “This Flag represents the will and resolve of the American people to protect those who cannot protect themselves and to stand strong and defeat all who attempt to bring us harm.”
Yew, sitting next to Haigh on Wednesday, said the gift was a “tremendous honor.”
“People ask me what kind of kid he was and all that in high school, and without sounding odd, he was the perfect average kid in high school,” Yew said of Haigh. “I mean, he was. He wasn’t an all-district linebacker, he wasn’t any of that stuff, but he was an accountable kid. He was here every day for practice, he could be counted on to be at the games giving it his all.”
Yew noted that Haigh had to get a job while in high school “to make ends meet” and did that while shouldering the extra responsibilities of playing football and being a high school student.
“When he decided to go into the service, to me at the time I thought man, this is a great decision for this kid to get away a little bit, to get on his feet, get some training. And here we are eight years later and the success story, for me, has kind of written itself,” Yew said. “This is what it’s all about for us. When you’re a young coach, you just want to win, win, win … but when you get a little older you start thinking about the kids coming back to see you and doing the great things and seeing them on their feet. Knowing that he’s a success in life is really – I mean it means a thousand times more to me than any win I ever had.”