Vancouver woman crochets American flag afghans for service members, their families (video)

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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photoAll Frances Lyons asks for in return for her American flag afghans is a photograph of the recipient in the service. Walk into her Lake Shore-area home and you're greeted by a wall of photographs, keepsakes and thank-you notes addressed to "Mama Fran."

(/The Columbian)

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Frances Lyons' heart is as big as the whole United States Armed Forces. And her hands stay just as busy as the hands of her military heroes — except she calls them "my babies."

"I've adopted every single one of them, in my heart, and they know it," said Lyons, whose tightly packed Lake Shore-area home is part crocheting studio and part shrine to American soldiers. "That's why they all call me Mama Fran."

Lyons, 77, comes from a proud military family. Her son, Terry, is a disabled Vietnam-era veteran who was exposed to chemical weapon Agent Orange and has post-traumatic stress disorder. Crocheting has been Lyons' way of life since she was a child — she learned it first from her grandmother and then from the lady down the block who became her mother-in-law — and in the year 2000, she had a great idea: to thank her son for his military service by crocheting him an afghan in the form of a great big American flag.

"He got the very first one," said Lyons — the first, it turns out, of approximately 300 that Lyons has crocheted for current and former members of the U.S. military, or their surviving families.

The personal connections are made informally; for example, Lyons and husband Ben recently held a garage sale and wound up meeting seven more military veterans who fell in love with her flawless and comfortingly fluffy flags. All seven have been added to her afghan waiting list, which is currently about 100 names long, she said.

Sometimes she delivers afghans in person and sometimes she invites folks over to pick them up. Those afghans get a special wrapping with ribbons and bows. Many others get shipped via the U.S. Postal Service, she said, but her packaging isn't quite as pretty — just because it won't survive the journey, she said. Active-duty troops can't accept the afghans, she's been told, because they're just too big and cumbersome to be mobile — so in those cases, they go to stateside families who are awaiting their loved ones' safe return.

The flag afghans themselves are approximately 6 feet by 3 feet, she said, and meticulously done in red, white and blue yarns, plus 13 white stars that are glued onto the blue field in a circle — what's known as the original Betsy Ross design — and then flattened beneath stacks of books on Lyons' dining table. The final touch, she said, is the gold fringe that means this isn't just any old American flag but a military flag. (That is a custom of flagmakers but has no basis in the U.S. Flag Code.)

She only asks for a photograph in return, she said. Pass through the front hallway — a shrine to John Wayne — and you come face to face with the real shrine in the Lyons home: a wall of photos, thank-you cards, emails and other keepsakes she's gotten back from all those men and women, soldiers and sailors — struggling survivors and, in some cases, mourning families.

"You remind me so much of my sweet kind mother I lost in 2006," says one heartfelt message.

"Sometimes in one's life, God sends an angel to replace the ones he took in your life," says another. "I feel that way toward you, Mama Fran."

Lyons once sent an afghan, unsolicited, to a Battle Ground family whose son never returned from Afghanistan; she choked up a little while pointing out his photo on her wall. She keeps a miniature flag at half-staff in front of the photo.

And then there are the photos that never arrive, leaving Lyons wondering.

One time, she recalled, she drove her son to a Portland veterans hospital and chanced to meet a troubled young man there; she offered him an afghan and asked for a photo of him in the service in exchange, as she always does. The young man broke into tears and said he'd destroyed all his military keepsakes, including photos, after five of his military buddies committed suicide.

She sent him an afghan but never heard back. She still worries about that young man. "I'm just praying that it got to him and he's enjoying it," she said.

All of which points to Lyons' motivation for becoming a one-woman patriotic-afghan factory: concern that troops and veterans don't understand how deeply they are loved and appreciated.

"I know they don't do it for thanks and glory," she said, "but if it wasn't for all those young people out there, we wouldn't be here going about our business, doing our thing."

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; scott.hewitt@columbian.com; facebook.com/reporterhewitt; twitter.com/col_nonprofits