CHAMPAIGN -- A man has spent the last 7 years making sure soldiers get a proper welcome home or memorial with flags. An Honor Flight of World War II veterans took off this week, headed to Washington D.C. to see the War Memorial there.
However this week's Hometown Hero is the man who made sure they had a proper send off; something he does for military members around the country. Larry Eckhardt is known around Central Illinois as the flag man.
"I always loved the flags," says Eckhardt.
It's a title he started making for himself about 7 years ago because he went to a soldier's funeral and realized something was missing.
"They had about two thousand people out to welcome him home. But I bet there weren't 100 flags and I thought that was wrong," says Eckhardt.
That's why he made it right and bought 50 flags just like these to decorate the next funeral. Then he bought 50 more.
"Personally I am just an idiot with a lot of flags," says Eckhardt
Seven years later he's collected more than 2,000 flags he uses to line military funerals all over the country.
"If you've ever seen one of our military funerals and it doesn't touch you, then I don't want to know you. These guys deserve a welcome home. It's just a lot of them have passed on before they got it," says Eckhardt.
Triple bypass surgery prevents him from doing too much.
"I missed one funeral, but I am not going to miss anymore," says Eckhardt.
However, he has volunteers coming from all over the place making sure these flags get into the ground.
"It doesn't matter if it's 10 degrees my volunteers show up. Especially for a funeral," says Eckhardt.
On this cold and windy day, these volunteers are lining Champaign's Willard Airport, not for a funeral but a happy occasion.
"This is one of the good things I get to do. I get to do the Honor Flights when it's possible and I'm tickled to death to do them because anytime I do an Honor Flight that means we have not had a soldier down that is kind of like a double award," says Eckhardt.
A reward that's not only his, but also for these 70 World War II veterans headed to the memorial in Washington D.C. Veterans like Neil Madden, who's ready for takeoff dressed in his old WW II uniform.
"I like all the atmosphere. I noticed all the flags along the drive, so I am real glad I am going to be going," says Madden.
Whether the event is for those coming or going, the flag man says each time is like the first.
"I don't cry, but my eyes sweat, and my eyes sweat a lot at these things. It's quite the honor," says Eckhardt.
He's done 94 funerals in 7 years.