The 13th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 is a couple of weeks away, and a local photographer has helped gather people together in a special way in remembrance.
Monroe County resident Tom Rollins is coauthor of the book “Under One Flag,” which unites three people, though seemingly unconnected at first.
He has worked for three years with co-authors Rick Randall and Amy George Rush to tell the stories of Michael Weinberg, Larry “The Flag Man” Eckhardt and Zach Reiff through photographs and text.
The journey began on the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, when Rollins went to go visit Randall’s flag installation on Art Hill in St. Louis.
Rollins spent four days on Art Hill photographing the process of setting up and taking down the more than 2,000 flags decorating the hill.
“(Randall) knew my photography from before, and he knew I wanted to preserve the display with photography, even after it was taken down,” Rollins said.
The more the two talked, the more they thought they should do a book on the Art Hill memorial that was made on Sept. 11, 2011. After the flags came down, about 600 of them went to Larry Eckhardt, who is known as “The Flag Man” and has been featured on CBS and in other media.
“He has attended 120 funerals of the men and women who have died in Iraq or Afghanistan,” Rollins said. “At that time, he had attended about 70.”
In November 2011, a young Marine from Preston, Iowa was killed.
“His name is Zach Reiff, and he is featured in our book,” Rollins said.
Rollins went to Iowa to cover Reiff’s funeral, which took place in the little town of about 900 people.
“I saw a wonderful thing. The flags bring the community together,” Rollins said. “When something like that happens, people don’t know what to do or say. Putting up the flags allows people to get out there and physically do something, and it’s wonderful.”
On the morning Reiff was to be buried, Randall was going down the road that was lined with flags and noticed a particular name on one of the flags: Michael Weinberg.
“Weinberg was a firefighter in New York and was one of the first people to be killed on Sept 11,” Rollins said. “We couldn’t believe that the flag with his name ended up all the way here.”
At that time, Rollins said he knew they had a story to tell. Randall took on the assignment of going to New York to interview Weinberg’s sister, and Rollins would document Eckhardt and his work as “The Flag Man.”
They knew they needed a writer and knew of a woman named Amy George Rush.
“She wrote a wonderful letter to us and said she would like to be a writer for anything we did,” Rollins said. “After we interviewed her, we knew we had the right person.”
Rush went to New York with Randall to capture photos and interview people, while Rollins went back to Preston many times to capture Reiff’s legacy.
The most rewarding part of this journey for Rollins has been the interaction with the families and people he has met along the way. “A loss like this is hard to comprehend,” he said of speaking with Reiff’s family and friends. “I’ve seen a lot of hurt and pain, but I’ve also seen a lot of wonderful things. Communities really come together in times like this.”
Rollins calls the book “modest,” but hopes that it brings people together.
“This is a book that is positive,” he said. “It tells the story of three heroes, but it’s representative of many of the heroes that have fallen in America.”
Rollins, Randall and Rush have done all the work pro bono through their organization, America’s Heartland Remembers 9/11, and will donate net sales of the book to organizations that provide veterans and their families with assistance.
“Under One Flag” launches on Sept. 11, 2014 during an event taking place on Art Hill in St. Louis’ Forest Park.
They plan to have a press conference and fly in Weinberg’s family, Reiff’s family and Eckhardt as well.
“We want to honor not just Michael, Larry and Zach, but the 6,800 men and women who have given their lives,” Rollins said. “We hope we can sell a lot of books and raise money to help other veterans in our area.”
To order a book and for a schedule of events for Sept. 11, visit www.underoneflagbook.com.