BLACKEY, Ky. (BP) – Nearly 3 feet of water had rushed into the home of Ed and Vada Rogers during the horrific flooding in eastern Kentucky last month.
Even after the rain stopped, the water did not. The water stood and sloshed in the house for two more days before help came in the form of the yellow shirts of Kentucky Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers.
Before long, the workers were sweeping out water and doing mold remediation. It was difficult, wet work, as piles of debris grew outside. They had done all that could be done, taking out furniture and appliances and cleaning up inside the house where possible.
When Vada Rogers returned to the home, she made a beeline to her cedar chest that had been covered with water. She opened the lid and found two American flags sitting in floodwater. The flags had been presented to her mother after the deaths of Vada’s father and brother, and now they were dripping wet.
It was a heartbreaking snapshot of the flooding nightmare she was living.
“That’s the first thing she went hunting for, straight to the cedar chest,” her husband said. “She thought the flags were ruined. She had given up on them.”
Vada’s father and brother were Air Force and Army veterans, respectively. Her father, Vadies Caudill, died in 1969 and her brother, Paul Caudill, in 1975. She kept the flags with some other mementos her mother and grandmother had collected in the cedar chest, which she thought was a safe place.
Her heart sank when she saw the flags covered in the dirty water.
“I opened the cedar chest, and everything was full of water,” Vada said. “Some of my grandfather’s stuff was in there, a picture of my great-grandmother and some other items. They told me to take a picture of the photo before it disintegrated. Once the mold gets on them, it just eats them up.”
Jeff Free, who was organizing the cleanup, was standing out front when he saw Vada coming around the corner “crying pretty heavily,” he said. “She was standing next to her husband. He put his arms around her and comforted her. I heard him tell her it would be OK. She had three shell casings in her hand.”
Free, who has participated in more than 100 military funerals, knew what the shell casings represented.
“She explained to me, ‘I thought I was doing OK until I unfolded my dad and brother’s flags,’’’ Free said. When Vada unfolded her brother’s flag and the shell casings fell out, emotions took over.
She thought the flags would have to be retired but Free asked her to allow him to try to get the cleaned. “I said, ‘If you will trust me, I will take these back to the church and get them washed. Worst-case scenario, they fall apart and we retire them.’ She said, ‘I trust you.’ That meant a lot to me.”
Free took them to the church where Carrie Joy Brookshire and Chris Knoth were working laundry duty with piles and piles to finish. He asked them “for a favor” and gave them the flags.
“They were wet, obviously, but they hadn’t begun to deteriorate,” Brookshire said. “We carefully unwound them, used a gentle detergent and washed them, made sure they were clean. We knew we couldn’t put them in a dryer.”
The flags were stretched out on the back of pews in the church so they could dry, Free said.
“We treated them with care and respect like we knew we should,” Brookshire said. It was emotional for the launderers as well as everyone else.
“I will always remember how honored I felt to have a small part in caring for those flags,” Knoth said.
They returned the flags to Free who put together a makeshift ceremony in front of the house with several other KYDR volunteers surrounding Ed and Vada, who sat in lawn chairs. They presented the flags back to Vada, neatly folded and in ceremonial style. It was an emotional moment for the Rogers and those assembled. They saluted the flags, played taps and prayed for the couple.
“There wasn’t a dry eye anywhere,” Free said.
They are not back in the house yet, choosing to live in a relative’s home for now. Ed Rogers said he was talking with FEMA about receiving recovery money so they could move back into their home eventually.
But the couple will remember the kindness shown to them “by the Baptists, who were so good to us.”
“These people have lost so much and if you can find something that gives them a glimmer of hope,” Free said. “It makes a huge difference in their day. Sometimes it’s the little small things we do that mean as much to the person you’re trying to help as cleaning out their whole house. We did Vada and Ed’s house, but I think us bringing those flags back to her is something she’s going to cherish for the rest of her life.”