- Posted By: Alan Hagman
- Posted On: 6:00 a.m. | March 20, 2013
As U.S. and allied forces advanced toward Baghdad 10 years ago, a military public affairs sergeant snapped a photograph of a Marine saluting the flag at sunset at a desert airfield in southern Iraq.
Taken on April 3, 2003, it was one of many images released by the Marine Corps during the invasion that launched the Iraq war. Through the years, the image has been reproduced countless times.
The Marine in the photograph, Master Sgt. James E. Valrie of Loxley, Ala., passed away June 12, 2009, after a difficult fight with cancer. The photographer, his wife, Marine Sgt. Tisha L. Carter-Valrie of Forgan, Okla., shared the story behind the photograph and the impact it has had on her family.
By Tisha L. Carter-Valrie
I had two failed marriages before I met James. I thought I was destined to be single. We met through a mutual friend who knew I was getting stationed in San Diego and suggested I contact him. We became the best of friends, crying on each other’s shoulders over other relationships, and eventually became romantically involved.
In January 2003, my parents made a trip to San Diego to see me one last time before I deployed to Iraq. They met James for the first time, and without any prior discussion, James looked at my father and told him he would like to marry me. I remember him saying, we don’t know what will happen once we get over there and he did not want to miss the opportunity to have me for his wife.
I was totally on the spot, but I said yes. We were married Jan. 25, 2003. Two days later, he left for Kuwait and I deployed shortly thereafter. He always used to joke that he gave me six months of all the sun and sand a girl could want on a honeymoon.
We were from different units, so we weren’t sent to the same places. After the war began, I was escorting media, and we flew into a desert airfield in southern Iraq. My husband’s unit was the base air traffic control unit. Coincidentally, it was my husband’s turn to take down the flag and perform the evening colors ceremony. I grabbed my camera and happened to catch the photo you see.
In 2004, I opened my mailbox one day and received the yearly Memorial Day postcard from USAA. I could not believe it, but there was my photo of my husband on the postcard.
This was just the beginning. Since that time, the photograph has appeared on countless websites, blog posts and Facebook pages. One year, the band KISS used it on their website in tribute to veterans. My kids were so excited.
My husband and I attended a 2005 U.S. Marine Corps Ball together and there it was again: on commemorative cups and coins, even on the cake.
In 2010, Marines in Boston reproduced the photograph in a mural they painted in the Hyde Park neighborhood.
Staff Sgt. Steve Dykhouse, who performed the colors ceremony with my husband that night, had the photograph tattooed on his arm.
Unfortunately, with all the wonderful ways it has been used, the photograph has also been manipulated and in some cases used in ways I found disrespectful. On Memorial Day, the flag is sometimes moved to appear at half-staff.
People have flipped the photograph, I’m sure to make the flag fly in the other direction, but by doing that, it makes my husband look like he is saluting with the wrong hand. In one case, the flag was turned upside down and used on an antiwar site. It makes me so angry when I run across it being used in a manner that does anything less than pay tribute to our country’s service members.
After 21 years of service, my husband retired from the Marine Corps in early 2004. I got out in 2006 and we moved to Murfreesboro, Tenn. In 2008, we discovered James had a very rare, aggressive form of kidney cancer. I took care of him until he passed away June 12, 2009.
His passing was very difficult for me and my kids. My children, who are from my first marriage, considered James their father. He taught my daughter to drive and took her to her first high school dance. He steered my son away from a life of juvenile delinquency and helped turn him into the successful young man he is today.
Tisha L. Carter-Valrie, her husband, James E. Valrie, and her children, Shantel and Robert Vargas.
This photograph has been a wonderful tribute — kind of me and my family’s own private little tribute, as very few people knew the story behind it, that it was taken of a Marine, by a Marine, and they were married. I am honored when anyone wants to use it. But this photograph has such deep meaning to me, my children and James’ family, that it is often difficult to swallow when we see it abused.
It took me all of this time to finally open the footlocker and backpack I brought home from Iraq. I found, for the first time, a CD with photos I had taken. I had totally forgotten that I not only took the photo that was published, but I actually caught, moment by moment, with the Iraq sunset in the background, James taking down the flag and folding it up. No one but me has ever seen them. I am sharing them now in his memory.