Baumhower: Marlee’s miracleWritten by Jeremy Baumhower | | firstname.lastname@example.org
You don’t meet a lot of children with the middle name Freedom. Then again, you don’t meet a lot of children like Marlee Freedom Eckert.
Marlee was only 20 months old when her dad, Army Sgt. Gary “Andy” Eckert Jr., was killed on May 8, 2005, in Iraq. Andy also left behind a wife and a 4-week-old son named Myles on that Mother’s Day.
I did not know Marlee or her family until two weeks ago when I learned of something that had been making her anxious and miserable.
At Marlee’s school there is an annual father-daughter dance called the Winter Ball. This dance sometimes happens to fall on the very day of her dad’s birthday. Marlee’s dad can’t make it, so this dance serves as a painful reminder of her father’s sacrifice — an unnecessary pain, in my opinion, created by an outdated event.
I posted her story on my personal Facebook page, where it garnered an immediate response, both positive and negative. As it went viral with hundreds of shares and tens of thousands of reads, an idea was sparked. What if the brave men and women who are responsible for rescuing, keeping us safe and defending our country would show up in uniform and give Marlee a “hero’s welcome”? This beautiful idea quickly turned into a moment the town of Waterville and Northwest Ohio will never forget.
On Feb. 22, more than 30 firefighters, police officers and members of the military from Northwest Ohio, both male and female, dressed in uniform to make sure Marlee’s night was special. Even members of fallen Toledo firefighter Jamie Dickman’s graduating class made the journey to Waterville to stand in honor of a man and his little girl they had never met.
Marlee’s arrival at the Winter Ball’s red carpet was met with applause and tears as she witnessed firsthand the respect this community has for her father’s sacrifice. Marlee’s grandpa drove nine hours overnight to make sure she had a proper date. Her mom bought her a red dress to make sure she had the proper attire. The uniformed heroes that welcomed her made sure she had the proper memories.
Once again the heart of Northwest Ohio showed it’s beautiful size and warmth.
I invited Marlee’s mom, Tiffany Eckhert, to use my column space to share her family’s story and struggles. This community is fortunate to have a girl with the middle name of Freedom being raised right here in Northwest Ohio. I expect nothing but great things from her and her siblings in the future. It is an honor just to have shared her story.
Here is Tiffany’s story, in her own words:
On Mother’s Day 2005, I experienced the most horrific loss imaginable. My husband and best friend, 24 year-old Sgt. Gary “Andy” Eckert Jr., was killed by a roadside bomb during his second tour of duty while serving as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Our children Marlee and Myles were 20 months and 4 weeks old, at the time. They are now 10 and almost 9.
Andy was the 1,600th soldier to lose his life in Iraq. Sadly, to a lot of people he’s just that — a number. As a result of the “go-go-go” society we live in, most people in our area have seen his face on television, on the Internet or in the newspaper, but perhaps they’ve never stopped to actually see him as more than that. He was a father, a husband, a son, a brother and a friend. He was an athlete. He was a comedian. He was kind. He was handsome. He was so many things. No matter how much time passes, he’s going to be missed. He’s missed every Christmas. He will be missed at our daughter’s wedding, when our son graduates college, when our grandchildren are born…
I’ll never forget the day we buried Andy. I was sitting in front of his casket, with a sea of people behind us. Marlee Freedom was sitting to my right, dressed in a white with piggy tails and a binky in her mouth. Myles was wrapped in a blue blanket on my lap. I remember how empty I felt as they lifted the flag from atop his casket and began folding it. As each fold was made, I held Myles tighter and pulled Marlee in closer. All I could think about was how incredibly long and difficult our road was going to be. My soulmate and our everything was lost forever, as he was continuing his deployment from the sands of Iraq into and through the gates of heaven. That pivotal moment in my life and the speculations that I made in those moments, pale in comparison to the reality of our loss today.
It’s been almost nine years. These nine years have been full of smiles, tears, learning and growth. Andy has missed everything. The list is long. But the list of what’s to come is even longer.
Each holiday and landmark event causes more and more damage to the silent levee that has been so tediously holding my children’s grief in place. I always imagined that things would be much easier for them. I assumed that because they were so young they would be saved from the darker side of our story. I never imagined that I would periodically end up holding one or both of them while they sobbed for their father. I thought we would be all smiles, flipping through photos and telling stories about how amazing Andy was in every facet of life. I imagined that we would relish in the fact that Myles is an exact carbon copy of his father and laugh at how Marlee has his chubby thumbs.
I didn’t think that our “normal” would include my kids asking to make trips to the cemetery to show their dad their sports uniforms or talk to a headstone about a really big day that had just transpired. The reality of our situation is that when we want to share the moments in life that others take for granted, we have to do so in front of a large slab of granite.
This past Saturday Marlee had a school dance. This year it was called the Winter Ball. Customarily this event is for little girls and their dads or a special man in their life. Usually the anxiety leading up to said event is significant for her, but in the end, this year was different.
I never asked Toledo Free Press columnist Jeremy Baumhower to write about Marlee. I never asked for the response we received after he did. I didn’t ask for any attention for myself or my children. I haven’t asked for the love or the hate in this situation.
What started off as tremendous negativity evolved into something beyond beautiful all across the board. We’ve seen firsthand that there are people who will be there to help you when you need it. And they will come without being asked.
This year, a group of civil service heroes were there to bridge the gap for Marlee Freedom. They lined a red carpet in place of Andy because he couldn’t be there. It was amazing to see there are still people who want to support and love our children all these years later.
Because there are still good people in the world, Marlee had the time of her life. Typically on a dance day, Marlee is somber and unenthusiastic about what’s about to unfold. There is usually a breakdown or two. I can’t imagine the emotional turmoil this dance has caused for her. She doesn’t want to go because it will make her sad, but she doesn’t want to miss it because everyone else is going. What a difficult cross to bear. Whether your father was killed in the war like Marlee’s or because your dad just isn’t around or because you have two moms instead — family dynamics just aren’t “traditional” anymore.
Just before the limousine driver from TLC Transportation arrived, Marlee started to get upset. It was just the two of us. It was quiet in the house. She was dressed up and ready to go when suddenly she looked up at me with those pretty chameleon grey eyes and tears started streaming down her perfect porcelain cheeks. I could tell she was trying to be strong, but I told her to let it go, get it out, have a good cry and tell me what’s wrong. She looked me dead in the eye and told me she didn’t want to go. She couldn’t go. “Mom, I just want my dad,” she cried out. That statement is so simple, but being on the receiving end of that as her parent is heartbreak.
I scooped Marlee up, held her close and I kissed her forehead. I know that’s what her Daddy would’ve done. I fought back tears as I fluffed the bottom of her dress and I told her that she was the fairest of them all. I told her that it was going to be OK, that there were heroes coming for her and her friends. It was in that moment that part of her crushed spirit seemed to leave her eyes. She perked up, she stood up, fixed her dress and proclaimed, “We get better, not bitter. I’m Marlee the Mountain Mover, right mom?” which I confirmed with an exploding fist bump and a tear down my face.
To everyone that helped with Saturday, I hope you know that just the idea of you being there is what fixed a terrible moment for my daughter. You saved the dance before the dance even began. Just the idea that people are capable of caring that much for someone that they don’t even know — and about her dad — that saved her. This is a night she will never forget. A night where it was confirmed she is special just like every other little girl.
I genuinely want to thank everyone that stood up and stood in for my daughter. The outpouring of love has shown my children that people do honor the sacrifice their father made. No matter how many years later, they need to see that people have not forgotten him. I’ve learned it takes a strong spirit to rise above. Ignorance generates destruction and some people will just never understand. I’m confident the character of my family has spoken for itself here. We will continue to love. We will continue to share our story with the world. We will not let Andy’s name die. Marlee will move mountains and Myles the Mighty will make his mark.
The backlash that has transpired as a result of the original situation has been worth it for me. Our family stood up for what’s right. This was the day that Marlee Freedom unknowingly stood up for “nontraditional” family dynamics.