Illinois man goes extra miles to honor fallen Orfordville soldier
ORFORDVILLE Larry Eckhardt said he’s just a visitor.
You wouldn’t have known it in Orfordville on Friday. Eckhardt of Little York, Ill., fit in the tight-knit community just as he has in dozens of small towns around the Midwest.
At Eckhardt’s direction, folks lined up like spokes on a wheel between his trailer and nearby pickup trucks. They worked seamlessly side by side, just as they do at so many community events in the small Rock County village.
Friday’s task was heavy with sadness, but they worked together as amicably as they would if they were setting up tables for the church potluck or hanging barn decorations at the 4-H fair.
Eckhardt’s neatly rolled American flags flowed down the lines of hands and were stacked carefully in the trucks. When all of the more than 2,000 flags were loaded, the friends and neighbors climbed into the backs of the trucks and headed into town, just as they have done a million times before.
One by one, Orfordville residents planted the flags in honor of neighbor, classmate, fellow veteran, brother and friend, Cpl. Benjamin Neal.
Hundreds of people placed the flags Friday evening in honor of Neal, the 21-year-old man who died April 25 in Afghanistan while on his second tour of duty.
Flags were placed along highways 11 and 213 in Orfordville as well as along the drive at Newcomer Silverthorn Chapel on the Hill. Flags also were placed at St. William Catholic Church in Janesville, where Neal’s funeral will take place Tuesday, and at Holy Cross Cemetery in Evansville, where a private service will take place.
Neal was the son of Don and Trisha Neal, who own a dairy farm in Spring Valley Township near the village. Neal was married to Emily Neal (formerly Blaxill). His siblings include Bradley, Becca, Brendan, Brooke and Bridgette, according to the obituary his family submitted to The Gazette.
Neal graduated from Parkview High School in 2009. As a student, he was active in wrestling, 4-H and FFA.
His contribution to the small community is memorialized this week around the village on signs thanking him and his family for his service. Members of the American Legion set up the Legion’s funeral flags, which normally are saved for Memorial Day and Labor Day events.
Eckhardt is an elected official and the owner of an apartment complex in his Illinois village of about 300 people 45 miles south of the Quad Cities.
He’s much better known for his other job as “the flag man.” On his own dime, driving his own decorated van and trailer, Eckhardt drives to small, Midwest towns and helps friends, neighbors and relatives set up flags in honor of fallen soldiers.
Eckhardt said he was inspired to start sharing flags after attending a military funeral seven years ago where he saw only 50 flags.
“I didn’t think that was right,” Eckhardt said.
He bought 50 more flags. And another 50. He ended up with a trailer full.
He said he calls ahead to the soldiers’ families and communities to get permission.
“The thing is, I’m a visitor to this town,” Eckhardt said. “I want to feel like I can come back under good circumstances.”
He contacts local American Legions, Veterans of Foreign Wars posts or other service organizations to help him get volunteers organized.
He does it because the soldiers died to protect things that are easy take for granted, such as the simple right to travel between states to pay respects, he said.
“In a lot of these countries you can’t just jump in a vehicle and go to another state or province,” Eckhardt said.
Last year, he provided free flag services in 30 communities. In April, he did seven, he said.
He has found people in Orfordville to be welcoming and patient.
“I warned everybody it was going to be chaos for the first 15, 20 minutes,” Eckhardt said. “But they hung in there.”