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No rest for 'Flag Man' who pays tribute to fallen soldiers

Courtesy Rick Randall

Larry Eckhardt says of his efforts: "These men and women give their lives to protect the flag. It should protect them on the way home."

Larry "The Flag Man" Eckhardt cannot be stopped. If a soldier dies in combat and is returned home to be buried within driving distance of his Little York, Ill., home, Eckhardt will be there. 

And he will be there with more than 2,300 American flags. Most are the size you’d hang on the porch – three by five feet. They are affixed to 10-foot poles, which are driven into the ground every couple of yards along the hearse’s procession route. Most of these roads are in the country. Some of them are dirt and no more.

These tributes, as Eckhardt, 56, likes to call them, have been stretched out for as many as 14 miles. Since 2006, he has planted flags for 108 service members in states across the Midwest. The majority have been combat fatalities from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, though he says about a dozen were suicide deaths. This Memorial Day, there are thankfully no funerals; Eckhardt will spend the holiday in Orfordville, Wis., speaking at an event. 

He gives a simple reason for his efforts, which can be exhausting and have put him in debt. 

“These men and women give their lives to protect the flag,” he told NBC News. “It should protect them on the way home.” 

Eckhardt is not a veteran and doesn’t come from a military family. He spent most of his life building combines for International Harvester, before an injury forced him to retire. He manages an apartment complex in Little York, but considers his work as The Flag Man his calling. 

It was seven years ago that Eckhardt attended the funeral for a soldier in a nearby town and thought that there just weren’t enough flags. Since then, he has amassed an impressive collection.

Each time a combat death is reported in Illinois and surrounding states, Eckhardt contacts the local funeral home or pastor to get the family’s permission for a tribute. He loads up a Ford Econoline passenger van and a trailer with the flags and drives for hours, sometimes through the night. Last year, he clocked thousands of miles. 

David Goldman / AP

Those who lost their lives in service to their country are honored during both private and public moments.

When he arrives at his destination, there are often hundreds of eager volunteers ready to help. In one town, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts decided to compete to see which group could disassemble the flags faster. The Girl Scouts won. 

“It’s so cool to get the kids involved,” Eckhardt said. “It’s teaching them that these guys are special. And we don’t ever want them to forget that they’re special.” 

Eckhardt comes in to each town a stranger and leaves with friends, and for this he says he might just be the “most blessed man in the country.” 

Rick Randall, a real estate developer in St. Louis, met Eckhardt three years ago at a funeral for an airman in Troy, Ill. Randall uses photos of deceased service members to create a picture board, a remembrance that can be shown at their funerals. 

“He’s a one-of-a-kind, he’s a force of nature,” Randall said of Eckhardt. “As many times as I’ve been with him in these small communities in the Midwest that lose young heroes, I still can’t comprehend how he does what he does.” 

Eckhardt says he has missed only one funeral within driving distance. In August 2012, he took off 29 days to recuperate from a triple bypass to open up a complete blockage in one artery and a 90 percent blockage in another. His doctor implored him to take a break for at least six months. 

“Ain’t gonna happen,” he said. “We would have missed so many of these young men and women coming back …The flags have taken on a life of their own.” 

Courtesy Tom Rollins

Larry Eckhardt in Preston, Iowa, hammers a flag anchor into the ground for the December 2011 funeral of a Marine killed in Afghanistan.

The flags made it to the service member's funeral under the care of some volunteers. 

Eckhardt’s dedication has earned him many awards, none of which he’ll mention unprompted. Last week, the state chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution gave him a Silver Good Citizenship Medal. Last year, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn declared June 14 as “Larry The Flag Man Eckhardt Day,” an occasion to “recognize and honor the sacrifice of our veterans.” 

Quinn, in a statement to NBC News, explained what Eckhardt’s efforts have meant to towns across the state. 

“I’ve seen these flags and the profound effect this stirring image has on the community,” he said. “I can see how the simple action of an everyday guy like Larry – a Johnny Appleseed of the Stars-and-Stripes - inspires others such as the Boy Scouts to join in solemn tribute. It means so much to the families, the friends and other service members.”

Eckhardt wishes that a few volunteers would take up flag tributes in states outside the Midwest. But he says that each time he’s been approached about the idea, he is asked how much it pays. His answer: zero.

Eckhardt has received generous donations, including hundreds of flags from Randall and the trailer that rides behind his van. The shaky economy means there are fewer contributions these days. 

“It’s an expensive proposition,” Eckhardt said of paying for gas, hotels and upkeep for the van and flags. “But it’s not about the money. I could come home and be totally broke and be happy because I know I’ve helped a few families.” 

Rebecca Ruiz is a reporter based in Oakland, Calif.