Name: Rick Mullins
Military branch and rank: U.S. Army, sergeant first class
Rick Mullins loves the American flag. If he sees a ripped one flying around town, he makes it his mission to replace it.
"I do it in respect and out of respect — I'd say I've probably changed 15 or 20," he said with a chuckle. He recalled a time when he was about 18 years old, not long after he enlisted in the U.S. Army, that he climbed up a pole at the East Lake Center to swap a tattered flag for a new one.
"I'll be nice about it," said the self-proclaimed flag protector, who was born and raised in Chattanooga. "It ain't gonna cost you a dime — I'm going to bring you a new one."
After four tours in the Middle East — one with a field artillery unit during Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s, two serving as a military policeman in and around Baghdad, and one as a customs officer in Kuwait — Mullins, 59, retired from the Army as a sergeant first class in October 2016.
"When I retired, I had 40 years of service, and I would probably say almost half of that (time) I was gone," he said, adding that while deployed, he missed the birth of his granddaughter, Preslie, named for his favorite musician, Elvis Presley. They finally met after Preslie's first birthday.
Mullins survived three combat tours, but he said some of his hardest days didn't come while under fire, like the Christmas when he called home to his wife and kids who were on vacation in snowy Gatlinburg.
"I'm laying over in the middle of the desert, and I'm going, 'Why me? Why me?'" he said.
Although training for war was a big part of Mullins' military career, he had other, lesser-known duties. As a casualty assistance officer, he was responsible for notifying family members when a service member died, an experience he still finds difficult to talk about.
"I rather be back getting shot at than having to do that. At least I know I can shoot back," he said. "I'd been trained for that, but I threw them books away. I said, 'You can't train for this.'"
But despite the hardships and time away from family, Mullins said he'd do it all again. Meanwhile, his passion for the flag hasn't wavered.
"Even though I'm retired, I can't just do nothing," said Mullins, who now works full time in Walmart's accounting department. And it didn't take him long to spot a flag in need at his new job.
"I went in and told the manager, 'It's ripped — it shouldn't be flying as it is right now.' Two days later, I was putting up a new flag," he said with a smile.
When people ask him why American soldiers are in the Middle East, Mullins said he believes it's for the right reasons.
"I don't have all the answers," he said. "But I look at it as a concept of protecting freedom, protecting who we are."
Contact staff writer Elizabeth Fite at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6673.