Local Gold Star family champions pay-it-forward lifestyleWritten by Sarah Ottney | Managing Editor | firstname.lastname@example.org
Birds chirp in a tree shading the Whitehouse Cemetery plot where 24-year-old Army Sgt. Gary “Andy” Eckert is buried. The tree was a sapling when he was killed in Iraq in 2005. Now it’s a sturdy young tree.
Andy’s son, Myles, has also grown. He’s 9 years old and the spitting image of his dad.
“Everything is identical, down to the way he stands, the way he looks, they way he laughs, the way he smiles, the way his teeth are set,” mom Tiffany Eckert said. “They were made from the same cookie cutter.”
Myles was just 5 weeks old when Andy was killed by a roadside bomb near Samarra, Iraq, on Mother’s Day, during his second deployment. His daughter Marlee, born while he was on his first deployment, was 21 months old.
One side of Andy’s large black headstone is covered in tiny stickers. Once a year, Tiffany, 32, cleans them off for Marlee, now 10, Myles and Tiffany’s daughter, Berkley, 3, to fill again.
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When designing his marker, Tiffany included a bench on either side of the headstone so she and the kids could sit and visit. His side is inscribed, “Freedom”; her side is inscribed “Strength.” An inscription on the back reads: “Marlee & Myles, I’m working in heaven. Be strong, be fierce, be kind.You’ll never be alone. I love you, Daddy.”
“I thought they might come here someday and it would speak to them,” Tiffany said of the note. “They ask to come all the time and I never say no.”
“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,” Tiffany wrote in a column for Toledo Free Press earlier this year. “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.”
Pay it forward
Not quite five months ago, an unassuming exchange at a local restaurant unexpectedly turned into one of those “big days” after Myles found $20 in the parking lot of a Maumee Cracker Barrel and gave it to a soldier eating lunch.
“Both of us had decided we were going to give it to our waitress, but then Frank came in and Myles’ eyeballs lit up,” Marlee said.
“Dear Soldier,” the note read. “My dad was a soldier. He’s in heaven now. I found this 20 dollars in the parking lot when we got here. We like to pay it forward in my family. It’s your lucky day! Thank you for your service. Myles Eckert, a gold star kid.”
“He reminded me of my dad so it came from the heart,” Myles said.
The recipient was Lt. Col. Frank Dailey, a 27-year military veteran serving with the 180th Fighter Wing of the Ohio Air National Guard. Dailey, a Bowsher High School graduate who lives in Perrysburg, was out to eat on Feb. 7 with his wife and their baby grandson.
“I was really proud because I didn’t have to prod him at all,” Tiffany said. “They did it on their own. To watch that unfold as a mom who’s been teaching them all these years is really awesome.”
“It was just heart-melting immediately,” Dailey said. “Reading the note, he expresses that his father was a soldier and he’s in heaven now. But you can’t really discern what that’s about until the very bottom when you find his name and he states he’s a Gold Star kid. That immediately clued me in on how his father had died.”
Afterward, Myles asked to stop at the cemetery. He wanted to talk to his dad alone. He won’t say what he said, but, from the car, Tiffany snapped a photo of him hugging the headstone.
“I don’t remember [what I said],” Myles said. “Actually I do remember, but it’s secret.”
Within days, Dailey continued the pay-it-forward chain, donating the $20 to CedarCreek Church for its local outreach efforts.
For months, Dailey kept the note on his dresser, where he looked at it daily. Now it’s packed away for safekeeping as the family prepares to move out of state for Frank’s next transfer.
“We’ve kept a close hold on it,” he said. “To me it’s one of those valuable items that we want to keep forever.”
The story gained national attention after the Daileys’ daughter posted a photo of the note on Facebook. Mutual friends tagged Tiffany and soon local media caught wind, followed shortly by national media.
“The true spirit of paying it forward is it’s not supposed to end up like this, but this has been neat because it’s been a learning experience for others. We’ve been able to share this story and challenge other people to pay it forward,” Tiffany said. “We still leave notes when we’re at restaurants, but it’s harder to be inconspicuous now.”
Tiffany was soon overwhelmed with offers to send Myles cash, video games and more. Instead, the family decided to redirect the donations to military children’s charity Snowball Express, which offers fun experiences to provide “hope and new happy memories to the children of military fallen heroes who have died while on active duty since 9/11,” according to its website.
“We’ve really been given this huge platform and the only way I could justify anything we’ve done is by continuing to do something to pay it forward,” Tiffany said. “Last year Snowball Express was suffering. They were low on funds. So I thought, ‘What better way to promote that organization than to have people pay it forward to them?’ It’s been really neat because it’s brought such awareness to what it means to be a Gold Star.”
Although she’s tried to limit the gifts they’ve accepted, Myles has gotten an Xbox, iPad and bicycle from various charities and donors. She is undecided what to do about offers to help fund the children’s educations.
“I just didn’t want it to get out of control and have them start thinking they were entitled,” Tiffany said. “While they are under my watch, I’d rather continue to teach them what I’ve always taught them and that’s to give, not to receive.”
Dallas-based Highland Capital Management soon stepped up with a $1 million matching funds challenge, offering the opportunity to turn Myles’ original $20 into $2 million.
“We don’t have a final tally back yet, but we’re really close to the $2 million,” Tiffany said.
Executive Director Buck Kern said Snowball Express serves more than 1,200 children each year, but there are more than 8,000 children who have lost a parent since 9/11. Myles and Marlee have both participated in Snowball Express events.
“Nobody at school really knows what it’s like, so I’m glad when we go to Snowball that nobody has to ask what happened,” Marlee said.
“My favorite part is meeting the other kids because they are just like me,” Myles said. “The worst part is the last day because you have to say goodbye to all your friends.”
The family has appeared on CBS and “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” They’ve met former President George W. Bush, Michelle Obama, Kid Rock and other celebrities. Over Memorial Day weekend, Myles was an honorary caddy at The Patriot Cup in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a golf tournament that provides scholarships and other assistance to families of killed or disabled service members. On June 18, the family traveled to Georgia to receive a Daily Point of Light Award, for promoting the spirit of volunteerism.
But Tiffany’s favorite experience has been right here in Toledo, when Friendly’s offered to host an ice cream party in April at Toledo Public Schools’ Glendale-Feilbach Elementary in honor of Myles.
“That was special,” Tiffany said. “It was so fulfilling, so rewarding just to see these kids challenged by Myles.”
Tiffany’s two mantras are “You get better, not bitter” and “Kindness always wins.”
“I was bullied a lot when I was a kid and that’s what I had to tell myself on a regular basis to get myself through,” Tiffany said. “Then when Andy died it really became a coping mechanism. Then the kids and I ended up doing it together as soon as they got old enough to comprehend. Doing kind things for others, for me, is very fulfilling. There’s nothing else besides my kids that fulfills me more.”
Tiffany and Andy met at a party in 2002 and soon became inseparable.
“There was just something about him,” Tiffany said. “He just had this calming effect. And those eyes. He had the most beautiful blue eyes ever.”
They were married at the Lucas County Courthouse on Feb. 28, 2003, a week before he deployed to Iraq.
“Andy pretty much asked me every day to marry him from the minute we met,” Tiffany said. “He was really adamant that he didn’t want people to ever think we just got married because I was pregnant with Marlee or because he was getting deployed. Him being deployed obviously expedited things, but he wanted to marry me from the second we met.”
Tiffany believes their “fast and furious” romance was meant to be.
“If it had happened any other way we wouldn’t have had the kids, we probably wouldn’t have gotten married,” she said. “We had such a short period of time from when we met to when he died. … It was a whirlwind, but I feel like it was meant to happen that way. It was definitely a God thing.”
Marlee was born in July, while Andy was still in Iraq. They had chosen the name Marlee Grace, but shortly before she was born, Tiffany changed her middle name to Freedom.
“I felt really compelled to do so,” Tiffany said. “I wanted her to know her dad wasn’t in the pictures because he was fighting for our freedom.”
Andy wrote Marlee hundreds of letters, even before she was born, Tiffany said. One she carries in her purse reads: “Hello Sunshine, Daddy loves you, and will be home soon. [Heart], Daddy.”
Andy was killed by a roadside bomb on May 8, 2005, about 500 feet from where he’d been injured a year earlier. That incident, in March 2004, sent him home with shrapnel wounds, a traumatic brain injury and a Purple Heart. But when his unit was called up in November, he volunteered to go back.
“Because of his injuries, he had to sign a waiver to be able to go. He said, ‘I can’t let them go without me,’” Tiffany said. “It wasn’t what I wanted, but who was I to tell him no? My job as his wife was to support him fully. He felt that he was supposed to go back and I couldn’t tell him he was wrong.”
Andy returned on a two-week leave for Myles’ birth in March 2005.
“[When he left again] it was really emotional because he told me he wasn’t going to come back,” Tiffany said.
At his funeral, she said she didn’t know how she would go on.
“You’re sitting there looking at an unknown, like looking at a blank space, and it’s terrifying. Especially when you know you are the one person in the world those two little kids had to count on,” she said.
“I always miss him. I always wish he could be with us. Then I just remind myself that he can see everything from heaven and I find some peace in that. I think I’m at the point now where I miss his presence for the kids more than anything. I had some time with him, but they never had that opportunity. He would have been the best dad ever. I know that for a fact, and that makes the sting that much sharper.”
Myles is a “typical 9-year-old,” Dailey said. He likes basketball, baseball and video games. Marlee likes soccer, writing and horseback riding. Tiffany works full time in accounting at a local marketing firm.
Myles said he might want to join the military, but Marlee said she’d like to be a writer instead.
“My dad was [a serviceman] and my dad’s dad was, and my dad’s stepdad was, so then I want to be because it’s a tradition,” Myles said.
Tiffany said her girls have taken all the attention on Myles in stride.
“I think the fact that, at home, they know they’re loved and all equal balances out what’s going on,” Tiffany said. “Marlee has shown a lot of grace. She’s an old soul, wise beyond her years. Berkley is just the sassiest thing ever. She doesn’t really comprehend, but she talks about that she got to go to the White House or she got to go to ‘Ellen.’ She doesn’t like it when we travel and she doesn’t get to go with us.”
Berkley’s dad lives in the area, although he and Tiffany are no longer together.
“I’m teaching her the exact same things I taught her brother and sister,” Tiffany said. “She just fortunately has a dad, a living dad.”
Tiffany is starting a foundation called Lucky Day, to encourage paying it forward to military families.
“I would like to focus a lot on PTSD and preventing suicides because Andy was a wounded veteran and we had to deal with the ramifications of some of his injuries and his invisible wounds,” Tiffany said. “I had prepped myself to spend the rest of my life taking care of him and I wasn’t afforded that opportunity. But I still have a heart and I still have a passion for those soldiers that have experienced so much and I’m still capable of helping.”
A second organization, a partnership with another Gold Star widow to assist Gold Star families, is in the works.
“This whole time I’ve acknowledged and respected that this 15 minutes isn’t going to last forever, so I tried to make right choices, stay normal, do the right thing, keep God at the center of everything we’re doing,” Tiffany said. “Now moving forward, we still have momentum and that’s why we’re starting these organizations to continue to help pay it forward.”
The attention Myles’ random act of kindness has brought to the family has meant reliving the pain of their loss.
“It’s an honor to be able to share Andy’s story and to preserve the legacy, but there are times where it’s emotional and it’s tough and you just sort of have to say, ‘I need a minute,’” Tiffany said.
“But whatever amount of emotional rigor I go through is worth it because not only am I speaking of Andy and celebrating the choices my children are making, I really feel like we’re celebrating all of the sacrifices and reminding people it wasn’t just Andy. It’s not just Marlee, Myles and Tiffany. There’s so many other families like ours. I always try to look at the bigger picture. It’s not ever once been just about us. It’s about us and the others.”
The intensity of the attention has toned down but hasn’t ended.
“I suppose at some point there will be an ending point to the attention, but I certainly hope there isn’t an ending point to the pay-it-forward mentality,” Dailey said. “I could tell you [my wife] Lisa and I had no idea that our life was going to take a whole different trajectory than what we had envisioned on that day.
“To me, it’s been a special ride, it’s been a fantastic ride. Quite the whirlwind obviously, the places that we’ve gone, the people we’ve met, the organizations we’ve been able to be part of. It raised awareness for us of the many needs out there.”
“It reminds you there are a lot of kids like Myles and Marlee that have lost parents,” Lisa added. “We look at it as we’re pretty fortunate. We still have [our soldier], but [those who don’t] need to be taken care of and the kids not forgotten.”
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