Monroe Countians can now cross the river to pay tribute to those who lost their lives in the 9/11 attacks and the resulting War on Terror at Art Hill’s Flags of Valor display in St. Louis’ Forest Park.
The rows and rows of perfectly distanced flags — and the connections the display has made — is documented in the book “Under One Flag,” co-authored by Flags of Valor founder Rick Randall, Amy George Rush and Monroe County’s very own Tom Rollins.
“I think the respect and honor that we show to the Gold Star families is of the utmost importance,” Rollins said. “It is the least we can do for those families, and to do as we’re doing here, (we will) never forget those sacrifices. ”
This year’s display consists of 7,582 flags, each with their own very special meaning, with the majority honoring American military service members killed in theater since Sept. 11, 2001. It has grown substantially since its first installation on the 10th anniversary of the attacks.
“On the ninth anniversary of 9/11, my wife and I saw online … a display of flags on a beautiful hill in front of Pepperdine University on US-1 overlooking the Pacific Ocean,” Randall explained. “We had been talking and thinking about what we were going to do for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and we thought because they looked so beautiful on that hill, we thought about Art Hill.”
Similar to the Pepperdine display, Randall and the Flags of Valor team decorated Art Hill for the first time with 3,000 flags on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, with each flag commemorating the victims and first responders who perished during the 2001 attacks. Each flag possessed the name and information associated with its hero.
Since then, Randall and volunteers have erected a Flags of Valor display every five years. Randall explained this year’s 20th anniversary display includes three main parts: picture boards with images of civilians who perished in the attacks, 412 flags for the first responders who died from the attacks and 7,054 flags for those killed in theater since.
Unfortunately, the number of these flags recently increased.
“For 17 months, we had been at 7,041 and that number held steady and we loved the fact that it held steady because another flag meant another death,” Randall said. “All of a sudden a few weeks ago we had to add 13 flags to it, one of which is for a young man in Wentzville. That was a hard day for all of us.”
Randall is referring to the 13 U.S. service members who perished in the Kabul, Afghanistan, airport attack. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Jared Schmitz, of Wentzville, Mo., was just 20 years old. All but one of those killed were in their 20s.
Randall’s and Rollins’ work is not limited to every five-year anniversary. America’s Heartland Remembers, the organization Randall founded to help kickstart Flags of Valor, provides comfort to Gold Star families year-round.
One main aspect of this is continuing the work of “The Flag Man” Larry Eckhardt, who is also heavily featured in “Under One Flag.” Up until Eckhardt’s recent passing, the organization and him worked closely to provide hundreds of flags for veterans’ funerals.
“It’s really just to honor the fallen, whether they’re World War II veterans who died at 95 or they’re young men or women who died overseas and come home,” Randall said. “We work with the families and funeral homes to make sure that when people pull up to that funeral home, it’s obvious (the funeral is for) a veteran because there are all these flags around the parking lots, streets and throughout the facility.”
This was the first year Flags of Valor hosted a display without Eckhardt, however, Jeff Hastings has vowed to continue Eckhardt’s work and assisted in helping the flags and their corresponding pictures and dog tags be put up in an efficient, yet careful, manner.
“When I look at these flags, I really think underlying them all is Larry,” Randall said, explaining how Eckhardt was the catalyst behind the organization bringing flags to funerals. “(With Hastings), it really felt like Larry was present. The only thing Jeff doesn’t have is a bag full of corny jokes.”
Both Randall and Rollins shared a laugh at this, and Rollins added Hastings also does not have Eckhardt’s hallmark cigar hanging out of his mouth.
Randall also crafts signature picture boards for veterans’ funerals, helping to display their memories. As he said in a video on the organization’s website, he feels as if he gets to know the fallen through this process.
Rollins — who, as the book divulges, has also spent ample amounts of time with Gold Star families — said this is a very important facet of the organization’s work.
“(Randall) goes to the families and … gets photos from them of their children when they were small all the way through (their lives) and he puts these picture boards up for them. It’s just wonderful,” the Columbia resident said, later adding something he learned from his own experiences.
“It is extremely difficult to be with a family who has lost a loved one like that. You have to have inner strength because they’re suffering and you don’t want to add to their grief, you want to be there to support them.”
And support these Gold Star families Randall and Rollins do. America’s Heartland Remembers gives these grieving families perhaps the most important gift they can — the assurance their loved one is remembered.
“The biggest thing that these Gold Star families are worried about is that their kids will be forgotten and the sacrifices they made will be forgotten,” Randall said. “So really, that’s the number one reason we do this, is to let the Gold Star families and loved ones of those heroes know that at least here in St. Louis, we will never forget their kids.”
Families who have lost a loved one memorialized with a flag at this year’s display can get in touch with the organization here so they can receive their loved one’s flag.
This year’s display will be up through Sunday, Sept. 12. For more information, visit flagsofvalorstl.com.