Published in the Sept-Oct 2012 issue of MyLIFE magazine
The war in Afghanistan. The war against the Taliban. Remember it?
America has been fighting it for more than 10 years, yet if you ask the average person on the street, few know why it still rages. More than 39 countries have sent troops to Afghanistan to support America’s convictions that the country needs help in creating a government devoid of terrorism. To date, more than 3,000 men and women have died—and of those, more than 2,000 were with the U.S. military. The English-speaking countries of Great Britain (422) and Canada (158) follow the United States in terms of lives lost.
In Great Britain, the Telegraph Media Group’s online newspaper has an interactive website where the country’s dead from this war are honored. See tinyurl.com/kj8nzj for access to names, articles and a way to share all kinds of information about fallen soldiers, using social media. You will read how towns across the British Isles hold events other than funerals and add names to war monuments, such as the one added in memory of Lt. Neil Turkington, in Portadown, Northern Ireland. Turkington, 26, was a member of the Royal Gurkha Rifles. He was killed by a rogue member of the Afghan National Army on July 13, 2010.
In Canada, soldiers’ bodies arrive at Canadian Forces Base Trenton, where they are transported by an honor guard through a 120-mile trip to the coroner’s office in the city of Toronto. The journey takes them along a section of Ontario’s Highway 401 (part of the Trans-Canada Highway) that has been named the Highway of Heroes. “This Highway of Heroes reminds us that our freedom, safety and prosperity is often purchased by the sacrifices of others,” said Ontario’s premier, Dalton McGuinty. “We owe them a great debt—and while we can never repay that debt, we can see to it that their courage and commitment will always be remembered.” Across Canada, every province has likewise renamed its portion of the Trans-Canada Highway the Highway of Heroes.
In the United States, Larry Eckhardt, of Little York, Illinois, is the leader of a movement to “flag” America’s fallen soldiers, and he is doing it in a unique way. Although the population of Little York is less than 400, when Eckhardt attended the funeral of a fallen soldier there seven years ago, almost 2,000 people showed up. “But there weren’t too many flags,” Eckhardt remarked. “The town had their flags, others had a few—I bet you that there weren’t over a hundred flags. That wasn’t right.”
He said he was motivated to purchase about 50 flags, and then another 50, and “it just grew from there.” Eckhardt began to fulfill a need to honor fallen heroes by placing as many flags as possible alongside streets and roads—and many people paid tribute to them. “When they bring the bodies home, people line up on the streets to pay their respects,” Eckhardt said of the funerals for soldiers who were killed in the line of duty. “In the Midwest, it’s a big event. I like to tell others that this is their [i.e., the fallen soldiers’] final gift to the community, because it brings people together that live next to each other, but never really talk to each other.”
Once Eckhardt had accumulated more than 500 flags, he started traveling to other states with a group of volunteers who joined him in putting up flags in Indiana, Kentucky, Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri and Illinois. “We just keep on expanding a little bit at a time,” he said. Over time, Eckhardt has become known as Larry the Flagman. He recalls a recent visit to Red Oak, which is near Omaha: “There were about 200 people who came out to help us put flags up.”
The Department of Defense publishes daily a list of troop casualties. Using this list, Eckhardt contacts the towns and cities where funerals will be held and finds out when the soldiers will arrive. “We have to have the city’s permission to do this,” he explained. From there, he contacts the local American Legion office and local media to help find volunteers. “Out of respect to each family, we always ask the families’ approval before doing this. We start erecting our flags the day before our hero returns home, and out of respect, we leave them up until the burial has been completed.”
Before one of the funerals, as one of Eckhardt’s volunteers was putting up flags, a man stopped his car and asked, “All these [flags] for just one soldier … one marine?” The volunteer started to become upset. The man then looked around and said, “It’s not enough, but it’s getting close.’” Eckhardt repeated the story with emotion, noting that the man had been looking at about 15 miles of flags lining the road.
The Flagman’s efforts have put more than 2,200 sets of stars and stripes into his inventory to be used again. Some of the flags have been donated, but most have been purchased using monetary contributions from everyday Americans who want to help pay tribute to fallen heroes. Pace Properties, a real estate investment company based in St. Louis, Missouri, donated 950 flags in 2011. “Larry … he’s a great American hero,” said Pace’s senior vice president of development, Richard M. Randall, Jr.
To help Larry the Flagman’s efforts, MyLIFE magazine invites you to send a contribution or a thank-you note to:
323 S. Broadway, Apt. 1S
Little York, IL 61453-9788
Perhaps the sight of so many flags flying in tribute to the loss of a soldier’s life in war will help bring about a change for the better. Grief will lessen, and the reasons for war will become irrelevant for humanity.