Volunteers line 7 miles of Main Street with flags to honor fallen Belleville Marine
Belleville News-Democrat September 22, 2023
(Tribune News Service) — Dozens of volunteers — some in full military attire or school uniforms topped by fluorescent safety vests, others in patriotic T-shirts or VFW or American Legion caps — worked with synchronized purpose in Belleville Thursday to line seven miles of Main Street with American flags.
Their route extends from the Cathedral of St. Peter downtown and through Mount Carmel Cemetery, where U.S. Marine Capt. Eleanor “Ellie” LeBeau Cooke will be laid to rest on Saturday.
Cooke, 29, was one of three Marines killed in the crash of a hybrid military aircraft last month in Australia.
Friends, veterans and others who said they were there to honor Cooke’s sacrifice, placed the flags roughly every 50 to 100 feet along both sides of West Main Street, passed both Althoff Catholic High School and Blessed Sacrament Grade School, where Cooke had once attended. The schools displayed their flags at half-staff as the volunteers worked.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered flags to fly at half-staff in honor of Cooke from sunrise Thursday to sunset Saturday.
At the cemetery, Steven Ha worked ahead of a line of pickup trucks carting the rolled up flags, using a ramrod to drive holes into the ground. A line of other volunteers paraded in single file behind him, planting their flag poles into the space he created before going back to the end of the line to get another flag.
Ha, a native of Minnesota and active military member stationed at Scott Air Force Base, said his time and effort are small return for the sacrifice of a fallen Marine.
“Knowing that someone locally has been here, has passed away and also tried to serve the country, I believe it’s a very necessary thing to do to bring back and give back to them and their family,” Ha said, using the back of his hand to wipe the sweat dripping from his face. “It’s respect and military honors that they deserve.”
In all, 1,080 flags were positioned along the funeral route, said Jeff Hastings, whose O’Fallon-based organization, The Flagman’s Mission Continues, coordinated the effort.
“The community wants to do something when these kinds of events happen, especially on military deaths or police officers or first responders,” said Hastings, the group’s president and CEO. “The community really wants to do something, so we give them the opportunity by bringing the flags and providing them a way to honor a hero from their hometown.
“But it’s also for the family. It gives the family a way to know that their community has surrounded them, that their community is supporting them.”
Cooke was a pilot on a MV-22B Osprey that crashed at about 9:30 a.m. Aug. 27 on Melville Island, north of Darwin, in Australia’s Northern Territory, while transporting troops during a routine training exercise, according to a Marine Corps news release last month.
The three Marines killed in the crash were identified publicly on Aug. 28. Besides Cooke, the other two were Cpl. Spencer R. Collart, 21, of Arlington, Virginia, and Maj. Tobin J. Lewis, 37, of Jefferson, Colorado.
Twenty others aboard the aircraft were injured.
Cooke, who used her maiden name in the military, was commissioned in the Marine Corps on Aug. 11, 2018, and promoted to captain on March 1, according to a news release. She married Chase Cooke, another Marine pilot.
Her funeral was held Saturday at the Cathedral with Monsignor Jack McEvilly officiating. It was followed by burial with full military honors.
The Belleville Police Department, which will provide an escort from the church to the cemetery, has asked that motorists avoid the seven-mile route Saturday morning and afternoon.
“It’ll be 29 days from the day she died to the day of burial,” Hastings sad. “The family is just totally numb and the family is grieving and they won’t remember much of this week or last week. They’ll remember bits and pieces, but I know every single family — the hundreds and hundreds that we’ve ever done this for — will come back to us and say ‘I remember you because I remember the flags.’ ... They’ll always remember.”
Those who helped Hastings place flags on Thursday were drawn for different reasons, but all said they wanted to pay respect to Cooke and her family.
“I think knowing I signed up to do the same thing, and possibly die, it’s scary,” said Beverly Volk, who retired to Belleville after a 21-year career in the Air Force. “I also have a son who is active duty and knowing that he may also not come home is also scary.
“But I think it’s the price that we sign up to pay. I’m honored to know the family and be part of this.”
John Mize, a senior at Althoff, said his family knows the LeBeaus and, while he didn’t know Cooke personally, he wanted to do his part to “preserve her memory.” He said he was struck by the cooperative mood of those who showed up to help with the flags.
“It’s been one of community, just coming together to see this Marine off,” he said.
Members of the O’Fallon High School Air Force Junior ROTC program were among the volunteers.
Callie Vandevoorde, a senior, said her involvement Thursday was inspired by two things.
“My family is actually military so it means a lot to me to have a fallen soldier and to go support the family,” she said. “They are going through something that I can never imagine and I want to support them in any way that I can.”
She also said she views Cooke as someone to emulate as she pursues her own military career after college.
“As a female pilot in such a male-dominated career field, I feel like she’s someone we can look up to,” Vandevoorde said.
“She gave us everything.”
(c)2023 the Belleville News-Democrat (Belleville, Ill.)
Visit the Belleville News-Democrat
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.