Larry Eckhardt never served a day in the military. Nor did his father or any of his three children. Yet he has spent the past seven years crisscrossing the Midwest to ensure that American flags greet fallen troops as they are escorted to their final resting places.
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Honoring soldiers became Eckhardt's mission after the 56-year-old resident of Little York, Ill., attended a local soldier's funeral in 2006. He decided the flag presence didn't properly honor the young man's sacrifice.
"There were 2,000 people to welcome him home, but there probably weren't 100 flags," Eckhardt says. "That just hit me wrong. Most towns can't afford to have a lot of flags, especially the way budgets are now. So I went out and bought 50 flags. And then I bought another 50. Every time I got a few pennies ahead, I'd buy more."
Now "the Flag Man," as he's come to be known, owns 2,280 flags. The largest is 25 feet by 40 feet. There are enough flags, mounted atop 10-foot poles, to line 14 miles of roadway. Since 2006, Eckhardt has helped provide a hero's welcome for more than 100 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, most of whom died while serving in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The pace has at times kept him on the road for all but 48 hours a month. The part-time property manager uses his savings and donations to help pay his travel costs. Before arriving in a town, Eckhardt gets approval from local officials to display his flags on city property and permission from the family of the deceased. In seven years, he has been turned down only three or four times.
Upon arrival, Eckhardt has been greeted by as many as 500 volunteers to erect the flagpoles along the funeral procession route.
"To me, the towns basically sponsor this," he says.
His Flag Man van is emblazoned with a sign: "We are not part of any organized group. We are not sponsored by any organization. We do this because we are thankful for our freedoms. How about you?"
Working solo allows Eckhardt to say what he pleases — one of the many freedoms the nation's military helps preserve, he points out.
His main objective, however, is to pay tribute to fallen service members and to offer comfort to their families. Even if it takes a toll. Last fall Eckhardt had triple bypass surgery. He has no intention of easing up.
"I can't slow down," he says. "Not until all these guys come home."
Andrea Downing Peck is a writer in Bainbridge Island, Wash.
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