A thousand American flags flutter in the breeze along State Route 157 as a white hearse carrying the remains of Army Spc. Randall Dalton enters Glen Carbon, Ill. (pop. 12,934), escorted by a mile-long procession of rumbling motorcycles and shiny police vehicles.
"This is how every fallen American soldier should be welcomed home," says Larry Eckhardt, 55, placing his hand over his heart as the hearse pulls into Sunset Hill Funeral Home & Cemetery.
Eckhardt never met Spc. Dalton or his family, but he says toting his flag-filled trailer 225 miles from Little York, Ill. (pop. 331), was the least he could do to ensure that enough American flags were flying at the July 24 funeral of the fallen Vietnam War soldier.
"I wish I could do more," says Eckhardt, who since 2006 has coordinated the planting of American flags along the funeral routes of more than 50 soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen who died overseas, primarily in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"Whenever there's a soldier down, I go, whenever possible," says Eckhardt, known across Illinois as The Flag Man.
Though Eckhardt never served in the military, he assumed his patriotic duty after attending a funeral six years ago in Galesburg, Ill. (pop. 32,195). "We had a local soldier go down and the citizen turnout was great, but I didn't think there were near enough flags," the former International Harvester employee says.
Eckhardt purchased 150 flags and began hauling them in the back of his pickup truck to military funerals across Illinois, soliciting help from American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) posts to stake the Stars and Stripes.
"Larry's a great inspiration," says Ronnie D. Hicks, 61, commander of VFW Post 2222 in Glen Carbon. "He puts a lot of time, effort and expense into this."
Eckhardt humbly saves the accolades for the dedicated volunteers who turn out to help display the rows of flags atop 10-foot steel poles. "Without them, it wouldn't happen," he says. "These people don't know me, but they show up and bust their humps."
Eckhardt recalls an 83-year-old woman in Orchardville, Ill., who stated her reason for helping him put up and take down flags in cold, inclement January weather: "We can only bake so many tuna casseroles."
Planting the flags
Before Spc. Dalton's funeral, more than 100 people-including Boy Scouts, active-duty airmen, military veterans and average citizens-volunteered to plant flags along both sides of a mile-long section of State Route 157.
"I never knew the young man, but when you serve you feel a certain connection," says Mike Keefe, 66, a Vietnam War veteran and resident of nearby Collinsville (pop. 25,579).
"He's been away too long and he needs to see that everyone loves him still," adds Doreen Packard, 55, a Delta Airlines flight attendant from Fairview Heights, Ill., whose father served in Vietnam.
Another of the flag planters was Pete Gallaher, 60, who attended Collinsville High School with Dalton during the late 1960s and also served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam.
"I came home May 6, 1971, and Randy went down in July," says Gallaher, reflecting on the loss of his teenage friend. "I owe this to him."
A helicopter door gunner, Dalton died when the aircraft he was riding in was shot down in Cambodia on July 24, 1971. The soldier's remains were recovered in 1989, identified earlier this year and buried near his parents 40 years to the day after his death.
Providing flags for Dalton's funeral was especially important to Eckhardt since his flags never had flown for a soldier who died in Vietnam.
"This is the first time we've ever welcomed a Vietnam veteran home," he says. "It's very special to us because these guys were treated so terribly when they returned."
Eckhardt seldom attends the funerals or meets the families of the fallen, focusing instead on the flag displays. "My job is to make sure the flags look good," he says.
He doesn't charge for his services, but donations help pay fuel and travel expenses. In 2009, appreciative supporters donated a 10-foot trailer to Eckhardt and earlier this year they helped purchase a van to haul his growing collection of red, white and blue banners.
Respect and gratitude
Eckhardt's rows of fluttering American flags illustrate community support for grieving families and offer patriotic citizens a way to honor soldiers who die in service to the nation.
"A lot of people don't know what to do to help the family, and this gives them an opportunity," says Eckhardt as passing motorists honk horns and wave to show support.
Eckhardt has been formally recognized for his efforts, receiving a Medal of Honor award in April from the Daughters of the American Revolution and a Patriotic Citizen Award in June from the VFW Department of Illinois.
Despite the honors, Eckhardt says all the thanks should go to the soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice.
"To me, everyone should have a soft spot in their heart for these guys," he says.
Eckhardt plans to continue traveling across Illinois, saluting fallen soldiers with his patriotic symbols of respect and gratitude as long as it's necessary. "This is my feeble attempt to say thank you to every soldier who has ever served and fought to protect the freedoms that I have," he says.