Chris Heisler’s U.S. Honor Flag — which he says has journeyed across the nation, to Iraq, into space and back again — has been Heisler’s ticket into several high-profile news stories in North Texas, including the slaying of Kaufman County District Attorney Mike McLelland.
Rightfully so, Heisler said — it’s a special flag.
“Once people hear the story of the flag, they’re amazed by it,” said Heisler, 42, CEO of the nonprofit Honor Network, which pays tribute to law enforcement personnel and other people killed in the line of duty.
But his oft-repeated story that his U.S. flag first flew over the Texas Capitol on Sept. 11, 2001, doesn’t appear to add up in large part because the flag is too small, state officials said.
And Heisler said he doesn’t have any documentation of the flag’s early years.
There could be a good reason why he can’t find the certificate authenticating the flag, Texas Preservation Board spokeswoman Karen Short said: The Texas House didn’t send him one.
“It just isn’t possible that the Legislature gave him an American flag,” she said. “I’m sorry to say that this gentleman is confused or mistaken, I guess, because it’s just not possible.”
Heisler, who lives in Keller, played down the origins’ significance, which has gained him attention nationwide.
“This flag impacts people in a positive and emotional way,” Heisler said. “So if I tell people this flew over the Capitol on Sept. 11, 2001, that’s my understanding of the flag.”
In recent months, Heisler offered his flag’s services after the death of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, Kaufman County Assistant District Attorney Mark Hasse, and McLelland and his wife, Cynthia.
He shows up in his Chevrolet SUV that is wrapped with the logo of the Honor Network. Chevrolet helps with the maintenance of his SUV, and General Motors regional spokesman Craig Eppling said the automaker wants to give him a new truck soon.
And while Heisler said he doesn’t receive a dime for his efforts, he also occasionally flies free on American Airlines on flag-related business. So does the flag.
“I’ve heard many times that it’s like a head of state,” he said.
In response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Heisler helped organize a November 2001 caravan to New York with police officers from across the country. There, officers gave their states’ flags to the New York Police Department.
He said the Texas House heard about the caravan and sent him an American flag and a Texas flag as a gift.
Heisler said that while he was at Ground Zero with the officers, someone else’s American flag didn’t fit on a pole. So, he said, he lent them his flag.
Heisler said he didn’t realize the flag would become the symbol that it is today, so he didn’t take any photos. News accounts at the time only mention a Texas flag, and two Garland officers who made the trip said through police spokesman Joe Harn that they don’t remember whether Heisler had an American flag with him.
Nor does Heisler have any photographs of him and his flag from later, when he says he flew it while on Army missions in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. Heisler served in the Army and National Guard from 2003 until 2007, when he received a medical discharge.
Heisler said in an interview that Texas House Sergeant-at-Arms Rod Welsh sent him both the Texas and American flags.
But Welsh said that’s unlikely.
“I don’t recall gifting a flag,” Welsh said. “If somebody came in today and said, ‘Hey, could you get me the flag over the Capitol, I’d say, ‘No, you can’t. It’s $120.’
“I’m not in the business of giving away flags because we don’t have the budget for that,” Welsh said.
Heisler’s organization also has suggested in the past that the flag came from Gov. Rick Perry. Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said the governor’s office couldn’t confirm or deny that it sent a flag.
Size matters, too, said Texas Department of Public safety spokesman Ken Scheer. Heisler’s flag is 4-feet-by-6-feet. That’s too small, Scheer said. The state Capitol’s American flag is twice the size: 8 feet by 12 feet.
When Heisler was told of the discrepancy, he said he didn’t remember who sent him the flag, but said it came in a FedEx package with the Texas flag that went on the New York trip.
The story of the flag’s beginnings, along with the Ground Zero account, is cited prominently on Honor Flag’s website and in news accounts about the flag’s arrival at ceremonies. Still, Heisler played down the importance of the flag’s early history.
“You can challenge me … on how the flag originated,” he said. “But you cannot challenge me on how many officers this flag has memorialized.”
He typically offers the flag to be raised on poles in front of courthouses or other places to commemorate those who have lost their lives in the line of duty. The U.S. Honor Flag definitely flew over the Texas Capitol, at Heisler’s request, on Sept. 11, 2007.
Heisler, who said helping people has been therapeutic for his Crohn’s disease, also arranges memorial services for families.
He also goes to the families of the fallen and offers to take care of media requests for the family, free of charge.
In Kaufman, Heisler took over as a spokesman for Cynthia McLelland’s children from a previous marriage, and her family friend Leah Phillips.
At a news conference outside his house last weekend, Heisler said the family was “furious” that the McLellands didn’t receive more protection after Hasse’s killing, and questioned whether officials were doing enough. The Kaufman County sheriff’s office then questioned his legitimacy as a spokesman for the McLellands.
Heisler showed reporters emails indicating he was hired by some family members, but parted ways with them the next day. Phillips told The Dallas Morning News that she felt that Heisler exploited her.
Heisler had a similar dispute in 2007 with Leander City Manager Biff Johnson, who said Heisler resigned after making numerous unauthorized comments to the news media.
Johnson died in 2011, and Leander Fire Department Chief Bill Gardner declined to comment.
Regardless, many other of Heisler’s clients walk away pleased.
Miami-Dade Police Detective Alvaro Zabaleta, who serves on the Honor Network board, said he can’t vouch for the flag’s origin, but said Heisler has been great for the families of fallen law enforcement since they met five years earlier.
Cynthia McLelland’s children, Nathan and Christina Foreman, also lauded Heisler in an email and said they didn’t feel exploited.
Mike McLelland’s eldest son, J.R., who had said he wanted Heisler out of the family’s lives, said he appreciated Heisler’s work arranging the memorial services for his father and stepmother.
And Jaime Pardinas, a Miami police officer stabbed in Grapevine by a convict en route to a Nevada prison, said Heisler “went above and beyond” in his aid while he was hospitalized.
“Everything he did was positive,” Pardinas said. “He went out of his way to make himself available to me and my family.”
Heisler said happy families are proof that he is doing something honorable.
“The origination of the flag is not important,” he said. “Where it is today and where it is going is important.”
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