Project 5: Larry “The Flag Man” Eckhardt in Brazil, IN June 2012

Flags fly in Covington thanks to Larry photo: Lean Keele

For my fifth project I volunteered with Larry “The Flag Man” Eckhardt.  While the purpose of 35 projects is to volunteer with nonprofits, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work with someone that is making the world a little bit brighter for families in the Midwest that are left behind when a soldier dies.  I feel that what I was involved in on a sunny day in Brazil, IN, was one of the most important things I have ever done in my life.

When a soldier dies oversees while fighting in Afghanistan, the body is returned home to the family for burial.  While we all would like to see every returning soldier receive a hero’s welcome, very few of us know exactly what to do or how to react quickly in the haze of grief and sorrow to ensure that happens.  This is where Larry Eckhardt comes in.  Based in Little York, IL, Larry is your average citizen, a father, a grandfather, and a neighbor who works as a property manager.  However, he harbors a not-so-secret double life as a modern day superhero.  Since 2009 Larry has been traveling to the funerals of soldiers who have been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq.  He arrives the day before the funeral with a trailer in tow that contains over 2,000 6 foot flags.  With the help of local volunteers, he lines the roadside of the impacted community with flags and sets the stage for a true hero’s welcome.  After all, when someone has given everything for your defense, the least you can do is say a proper thank you.

Spc. Arronn D. Fields

The Evening News Becomes Real
I heard about Larry when he was profiled on the CBS Evening news in May of 2012.  He had driven all night, 602 miles and 11 hours, to Sterling, KY.  He was there to erect flags for a tribute to PFC Dustin Gross, whom he had never met. Upon seeing 2,200 flags lining an 8 mile processional route, Pfc. Gross’ mom, Angie Brown, choked back tears and exclaimed about Eckhardt, “That’s somebody who’s got a heart right there.  I don’t think we could thank him enough. I really don’t.”

Through the wonders of Facebook, I was able to easily connect with Larry to assist him as he set up for his 88th military funeral.   Word spread that the flags would be put up in Brazil, Indiana for National Guardsman, Spc Arronn D. Fields.  The round-trip for me would be 882 miles. While I didn’t cherish the thought of a 13 hour round-trip by myself in one day with hours physical work wedged in the middle, I thought of Spc. Fields family and my sacrifice suddenly seemed very small. Spc. Fields died from injuries sustained during a rocket-propelled grenade attack on May 21 in Qal-ah-ye Mirza Jal, Afghanistan.  As reported by the local media, Spc. Fields had deployed in January with the 381st Military Police Company called Task Force Guardian. He had already served a tour in Iraq years earlier.

Flags going up in Brazil, IN near the cemetery

Brazil Bound

I had no idea what the volunteer turnout would be in Brazil.  When I rounded the corner on Route 340 and approached the meeting site, I only saw 3 vehicles.  I was a little worried.  With only a few pairs of hands to help, the flags were going to take hours to put up.  My budget for this trip was dedicated to gas and I had no money for a hotel room if the project ran late.  I drove a few more yards and realized that I was only seeing the far corner of the school lot.  Larry’s flag trailer sat in the parking lot surrounded by dozens of vehicles.  In all, over 200 volunteers turned out with trucks, sledgehammers, work gloves and water bottles.  It was an amazing site to behold. And to think that one man, coordinating with local VFW’s and fire halls to spread the word to possible volunteers, had made this happen.  Larry’s one-man obsession to honor the fallen was being embraced by a grateful community. I found this interesting because all causes start out as one person’s cause. But when you communicate your vision to others in a way that people understand and respond to, you can create something that will carry on long after you are gone.

Larry made the Northview High School in Brazil his home base and the community pitched in to load the (surprisingly heavy) flags into the back of several pickup trucks.  From there, a team of volunteers followed each truck. The flags had to be taken out of the back of the trucks, unfurled, and placed into the ground after a manual post-setter and sledgehammer team prepared a hole. I was amazed at the trust that was involved in being a part of that two-man team.  A slip of the wrist and a sledgehammer could  smash your hand.

 

A team of volunteers prepares the ground for a flag pole in Brazil, IN

Hard Work in the Hot Sun

I worked with volunteers from the area to put up some of the 2,200 flags.  As with the Fences for Fido build, this was plain hard work.  I told Larry my surprise at that fact and he laughed.  It wasn’t the first time he had heard that. He warns people that this is tough work. If you ever have the pleasure of meeting Larry, he’ll likely strike you as a kind-hearted, laid-back Midwesterner. He’s gone into personal debt to finance his elaborate displays and travels to attend funerals. He simply says someone needs to do it, so why not him?

Volunteering that day was an amazing experience.  I had expected it to be one of the saddest and emotional days of my life.  I was going to be in the middle of what had been my biggest fear throughout my brother’s two deployments in Iraq.  However, the flag project gave everyone in Brazil something to rally around. It’s not too often that tragedy strikes close to home and there is something that you can immediately get up and do to assist.  Larry offers that opportunity to communities in mourning.  While a hero’s welcome home put on by hundreds of residents can’t bring a loved one back, it is meaningful gesture and a wonderful way for the families to have their grief momentarily shouldered by the community.

Taking down the flags in Covington, IN photo credit: Kathy Hegg Waclaw

Marching On

Sadly, Brazil, Indiana wouldn’t be Larry’s only military funeral that week.  While I headed north towards Michigan, Larry’s journey would continue all week. When the flags were taken down on Wednesday, they traveled with Larry north to Covington.  Resident Lance Cpl. Joshua E. Witsman, 23, was serving in Helmand Province, Afghanistan in support of combat operations with 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment.  His decorations included the Combat Action Ribbon, National Defense Service Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal with two bronze star devices, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Sea Service Deployment Ribbon with bronze star device, and the NATO Medal-ISAF Afghanistan.  He was another American hero honored by Larry “The Flag Man” Eckhardt that week.

 

Learn more about Larry at facebook.com/larry.t.eckhardt

If you’d like to donate to Eckhardt’s efforts, please mail him: 323 South Broadway Street, Apt. 1S, Little York, IL 61453

Memorial contributions in honor of Spc. Fields may be made to the Arronn Fields Scholarship Fund, in care of Riddell National Bank, 1 E. National Ave. Brazil, Ind., 47834.

Flags line the funeral procession route for a soldier in Covington, IN