More than two dozen pickup trucks lined East Park Street near Keyes City Park in Du Quoin Monday afternoon, as Larry "The Flag Man" Eckhardt and nearly 100 volunteers worked to help honor the life of PFC Tyler Iubelt.
The crew pulled more than 2,000 American flags, most of the 3 x 5 feet in size, from two large trailers, to line the route from Du Quoin to Sunset Memorial Park – Iubelt"s final resting place – slightly more than two miles north of the city.
Visitation for PFC Iubelt—killed in Afghanistan Nov. 12-- is Tuesday and the funeral is at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday.
Eckhardt cannot be stopped. If a soldier dies in combat and is returned home to be buried within driving distance of his Little York, Illinois home near Galesburg, Eckhardt will be there.
They are attached to 10-foot poles, which are driven into the ground every 20 feet along the hearse"s procession route.
These tributes, as the 60-year-old Eckhardt calls them, have been stretched out for more than 10 miles. Since 2006, he has planted flags for nearly 200 service members across the Midwest. The majority have been combat fatalities from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He gives a simple reason for his efforts, which can be exhausting and have, on occasion, put him in debt.
"These men and women give their lives to protect the flag," he says. "It should protect them on the way home."
"I have been doing this for 13 years," Eckhardt added. He went to a funeral once where there were fewer than 100 flags. "It"s a disgrace," he said.
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.
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.
On Monday there was no shortage of volunteers who wanted to help.
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."
Eckhardt believes 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.