America First


Oaklander on mission to save 'veteran's soul'

Good Samaritan searches for family of James M. Arnold after buying flag-box at flea market

  By Hanna Tamrat, STAFF WRITER

Derek Conant's casual trip to Oakland's Laney College flea market turned into a months-long mission to "save a war veteran's soul" after he found a casket flag-box there for sale.

The 41-year-old traveling marine consultant hustled to buy the triangle-shaped box containing the American flag, which honored a man he doesn't know. He wanted to make sure it gets to someone who does.

"I thought to myself, 'What if this were my (late) grandfather's or my father's, representing his honor?'" Conant said. It could be the only memento "one may have left of a person."

He said a bronze name plate caught his attention. It read: "James M. Arnold 1933-1999."

There are always flags for sale at flea markets, but this one had a soul attached to it, Conant said. Besides trying to save a war veteran's soul, Conant felt compelled to buy the casket flag-box just to get it off the ground where it was displayed for sale that wet winter Sunday.

So he went back to his truck to retrieve some old saws to trade for the flag box, but the seller wasn't interested. No other vendor at the flea market was interested in the saws either, he said.

Conant alternately lives in Oakland and San Rafael and spends most of his time traveling to save historic ships. He came across the memento when he went to shop for second-hand tools to work on boats, he said.

The flea market seller asked $13, but Conant only had $3 in cash.

After an hour passed, Conant recognized a couple he helped a few weeks earlier. He had fixed their truck when they were stranded on 12th Street.
Oaklander on mission to save 'veteran's soul'
Derek Conant & Associates - America First DEREK CONANT of Oakland has been searching unsuccessfully so far for the family of the veteran whose casket flag he found and bought at the Laney College flea market several months ago. The name plate reads: James M. Arnold 1933-1999. (D. ROSS CAMERON Staff) Derek Conant & Associates - America First

The couple, regular sellers at the flea market, also recognized the good Samaritan and did not hesitate to give him the $10 in return for the favor, he said.

Conant bargained the flag-box' price down to $12 and bought it with $2 from his pocket and the donated $10.

"I wasn't going to give (the seller) my last dollar," he said, remembering how he was dismayed at what he felt was the lack of respect given the flag and box.

When Conant opened the box, he found a salute letter and a few rifle shells inside.

The letter indicated that the late Arnold was a U.S. Army corporal who served in the Korean War.

In light of U.S. service members who have paid and continue to pay the ultimate price serving their country, Conant felt it was the right thing to do to track down the soldier's survivors.

At the time, Conant was in the middle of another mission to feed homeless veterans during the Thanksgiving-Christmas season. He spent about $40 per evening out of his pocket for pizzas and other food and drinks, he said.

After nearly eight weeks on his "Save Veterans" mission - the fledgling organization he started - to help those found underneath bridges and at the footsteps of courthouses, Conant ran out of money and time, he said.

Coming across the triangle-folded flag traditionally given to an immediate family member during a war veteran's funeral service, it "all kind of materialized in a way," Conant said.

His initial Internet search indicated that Arnold was born in Oakland and died in Alameda. Hoping to reach a family member, Conant called a dozen numbers listed under "Arnold" in the phone book, with no luck.

A further search indicated the veteran was buried at the San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery. The cemetery director agreed to contact the family, if any, on behalf of Conant. But the contact numbers in the cemetery's files were no longer good, said Ralph Bennett, executive director.

Veterans of Foreign Wars spokesman Joe Davis in Washington, D.C., said it is not unusual for triangular flag boxes to be donated to charity or sold at an estate sale when there is no family to pass them on to.

"People are very reluctant to toss U.S. flags into the trash because respecting it is something all of us have learned since childhood," he said.

Conant said he believes this flag was not sold, but rather perhaps lost, and if there is no family member available, he hopes to find a friend of the veteran who might be interested in saving it.

"I will find someone," he said with conviction.

Anyone who would like to claim the flag box or has any information on the late James M. Arnold should contact Derek Conant at or call him at (510) --- ----.

E-mail Hanna Tamrat at

More about this story:
  •      1 August 2006  -  Oaklander on mission to save 'veteran's soul'
  •      5 August 2006  -  Family behind flag is found
  •      19 August 2006  -  Veteran's flag returned to family at last

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