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Purple Heart hero touched many lives

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    Sgt. Gary "Andy" Eckert

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    Fellow soldiers carry the casket containing Sgt. Andy Eckert to his burial at Whitehouse Cemetery yesterday.

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    Widow Tiphany Eckert and Brig. Gen. Michael Beasley salute the coffin of Sgt. Andy Eckert following his funeral yesterday.

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    Brig. Gen. Michael Beasley, commander of the 88th Regional Readiness Command, presents a flag, right, to Deborah Cieslak, mother of the 24-year-old soldier.

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Widow Tiphany Eckert and Brig. Gen. Michael Beasley salute the coffin of Sgt. Andy Eckert following his funeral yesterday.

Morrison / The Blade
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With recordings of his wife's messages to him ringing love and hope throughout the sanctuary of the Calvary Assembly of God Church, photo after photo of a smiling Gary "Andy" Eckert flashed on screens yesterday behind his flag-draped coffin.

There were photos of the Army Reserve sergeant with his friends, photos with his wife, Tiphany, photos of him holding his daughter - not quite 2 years old - and his newborn son.

And there were photos of Sergeant Eckert in uniform, serving alongside his fellow soldiers in Iraq, where he was killed May 8 near Bulad after an explosive detonated near his vehicle.

Sergeant Eckert, 24, was the first member of the U.S. Army Reserve's 983rd Engineer Battalion in Monclova Township killed in action since World War II.

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Sgt. Gary "Andy" Eckert

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It was his second tour overseas, the first one ended after he sustained injuries for which he received the Purple Heart.

Crowded into the church with the flag at half-staff outside, nearly 650 people gathered yesterday - with tear-stained cheeks and wrists adorned with red bracelets proclaiming "COURAGE" - to say good-bye.

"Andy didn't have to go back to war. He came back a Purple Heart recipient," said Brig. Gen. Michael Beasley, commander of the Army's 88th Regional Readiness Command.

"He wanted to go back to serve our nation, with our soldiers. He served after the birth of [his daughter] Marlee Freedom. He served knowing [his son] Miles Manning was on the way," General Beasley said.

"He was a wonderful soldier and a brilliant patriot. He was someone who taught us a whole lot about wearing a uniform, about being a father, about being a husband, and about being an American."

The two-hour church ceremony was a tribute to the young man's short but full life. Family and friends spoke of his love of sports and his competitive nature.

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Fellow soldiers carry the casket containing Sgt. Andy Eckert to his burial at Whitehouse Cemetery yesterday.

Morrison / The Blade
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They recalled times when, although a huge University of Michigan fan, he spent afternoons cheering for the Ohio State Buckeyes with his friends.

They also spoke of the love story that evolved when he met his wife. The two were married four days after he was called to active duty on Feb. 24, 2003.

"I was going to write a letter, but I couldn't find the words. But Andy taught me that actions speak louder than words. The biggest action he ever showed me was love," Mrs. Eckert said yesterday. "Because God gave Andy to me, I know what it is to be cherished."

Sergeant Eckert grew up in Whitehouse and graduated from Anthony Wayne in High School in 2000.

Yesterday, his body was interred with a military ceremony at Whitehouse Cemetery, complete with a gun salute and a flyover by an air ambulance helicopter.

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Brig. Gen. Michael Beasley, commander of the 88th Regional Readiness Command, presents a flag, right, to Deborah Cieslak, mother of the 24-year-old soldier.

Morrison / The Blade
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Members of the 983rd Battalion who have not been deployed or are home on leave honored their fellow soldier with a salute.

Members of their families were each given a Gerber daisy - "Andy and Tiphany's flower" - to place on his coffin, said Jackie Kidd-Lutzmann, family program coordinator for the battalion.

Mrs. Kidd-Lutzmann said it was touches such as the flowers, the bracelets, and the red, white, and blue magnets proclaiming "Freedom Isn't Free" that were attached to vehicles in the procession to the cemetery that Mrs. Eckert requested to make her husband's funeral special.

Family members of the 983rd soldiers all wore pink, she said, to celebrate with "Andy and Tiphany's color."

"He was the only guy who could wear pink and still look macho," Mrs. Kidd-Lutzmann said. "He was a very, very special young man."

Sergeant Eckert's military experience began March 6, 2003, when he left for training. He arrived in Iraq on May 19, 2003.

He was originally with the 983rd Battalion, but transferred for a time to the 244th Engineering Battalion, based in Fort Collins, Colo. It was when the 983rd was mobilized in the summer of 2004 that Sergeant Eckert decided to return to Iraq with his battalion.

Sergeant Eckert was awarded several medals for his service, both before and after his death. Among them the Bronze Star for valor and his second Purple Heart - this time for giving his life to his country.

"This has been a very, very sad time but we're also very proud of Andy. It's incredible what he accomplished in his life," said Bret Howland, a close friend who said he thought of the young soldier as a son.

"We're never going to let his children forget who their daddy was. That's the goal from now on: to keep the spirit alive of Andy Eckert."

Contact Erica Blake at: eblake@theblade.com or 419-724-6076.

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