Sergeant's daughter draws uniform support at school ball

By TAYLOR DUNGJEN | The Blade, Toledo, Ohio | Published: February 23, 2014

Dad can’t make it.

Marlee Freedom Eckert knows that.

At 10 years old, the Waterville girl is well aware of the major loss she has endured.

When she was 20 months old, her father was killed in Iraq, caught in an improvised-explosive device detonation.

Sgt. Andy Eckert was only 24.

This year, as it came time for Waterville Primary School’s Winter Ball, Marlee became a little anxious.

Little girls just want to dance with their dads.

Instead, on Saturday night — her blond hair in a bun and wearing a white and red dress, a leather vest bearing her name and military patches, and sequined white sneakers — Marlee strode up a red carpet to a hero’s welcome from dozens of local police, firefighters, and military personnel, then returned to escort her grandfather, Dave Miramontes, past the receiving lines.

In memory of Sergeant Eckert. In honor of Marlee. To make sure all of the young girls know that they’re special.

“They’ll look back when they’re older and say, ‘It was a really neat experience. That’s not normal, but it happened for us,’ ” said Marlee’s mother, Tiffany Eckert, 32.

“This is for all the girls, not just Marlee,” Dr. Miramontes, the former medical director of the Toledo Fire Department, said before adding: “They may not all have traditional families.”

“We want Marlee to have a special dance,” said Holly Bennett, a family friend from Point Place and former co-worker of Dr. Miramontes who helped organize the outpouring of uniformed support. “Any time, any one of us in uniform are here for her. We want this to be a special night instead of one of anxiety.”

Dr. Miramontes, now an assistant fire chief in Washington, drove through the night Friday to make it back home for the dance. He is, Mrs. Eckert said, the only father figure Marlee and her brother, Myles, have known.

“I love spending time with my grandkids,” Dr. Miramontes said. “I call them my grandmonsters. ... I’m sometimes the disciplinarian over FaceTime ... but I’m the firm but cuddly kind of grandpa.”

Because he has strong ties to the local fire scene, he knew quite a few of the men and women on the red carpet Saturday night.

“That extended family is there to help,” he said. “The military family, the fire family, they’re all there to support. They’ll give the shirt off their back to help somebody.”

“It was kind of overwhelming at first,” Marlee said after walking up the red carpet with her grandfather. “But it was really nice of folks” to turn out in such great numbers.

Marlee also has received support from Danielle Dressel and her husband, Toledo police Officer Donald Comes.

Ms. Dressel, whose late husband, Toledo police Detective Keith Dressel, was killed in the line of duty on Feb. 21, 2007, said the loss she and her family went through is similar to what Marlee and Myles are experiencing.

“We just want to make this little girl feel as much comfort as she can in this time,” she said. “We wanted to do it. We’ve been in her shoes.”

Mr. and Mrs. Eckert had a whirlwind romance. They were married for two years, two months, and 11 days. Six days after their Feb. 28, 2003, wedding, Mr. Eckert left for Iraq.

Marlee was born on July 17, 2003.

In March, 2004, Mr. Eckert was in Iraq, traveling in a convoy to Kuwait, when a crude roadside bomb exploded and shrapnel struck the soldier’s jaw, arm, and neck.

He received a Purple Heart. No one expected that he would volunteer to return.

On March 26, 2005, Myles was born. Days later, Sergeant Eckert returned to war.

It was Mother’s Day — May 8, 2005 — when Sergeant Eckert was killed in Tikrit, Iraq. It was only 500 feet from where he was wounded less than one year earlier.

“She was so young when her dad died, but she’s well aware of who he is,” Mrs. Eckert said. “He’s part of her life, and she’s of the age now where she realizes ... that she doesn’t have a dad and it’s really traumatic for her.”

Mrs. Eckert tries to make happy memories for her children, to let them remember and memorialize their father in their own ways.

That’s why on his birthday and for other holidays, the family usually goes to his grave at Whitehouse Cemetery and decorates his headstone with stickers. Hearts for Valentine’s Day, maybe eggs and bunnies for Easter.

Sergeant Eckert would have turned 33 on Tuesday; crummy weather postponed a trip to the cemetery. The family instead went to dinner at Red Robin at Fallen Timbers — the sergeant’s favorite restaurant.

“She told me they were celebrating the birthday, and I asked where he was,” said server Nicole Padilla, 26, of Toledo. “When they said he passed away I sat down like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ ... I felt such a connection. I got attached.”

Mrs. Eckert showed Ms. Padilla, a mother to two young boys, a television video clip about Myles finding $20 in a restaurant parking lot and giving it to a soldier there.

“I started bawling,” said Ms. Padilla, who has worked at the restaurant for 2½ years.

Ms. Padilla and two other servers paid the $30-something check for Sergeant Eckert’s birthday dinner. At the same time, the Eckerts were leaving a note for Ms. Padilla with $20 so she could “pay it forward.”


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