As a local boy called "Ticker," he dreamed of soldiering, and as a decorated soldier he traveled the world. Several hundred people filed into a plain, white church Saturday in Guilford to remember Eaton.
Eaton, who came from a long line of military men, Saturday was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star. He had grown up to become an accomplished agent in the secretive world of military intelligence. As an Army reservist and a contractor for the Defense Department, he served in Korea, Panama, the Philippines, Honduras, El Salvador and Kuwait -- and, on more secret missions, in places that no one who knew would mention.
"Rick served with pride under the most difficult conditions because he believed his work was important," said First Selectman Carl A. Balestracci, a former teacher who knew Eaton as a student.
"The boy had been taught in Guilford schools to become a man," he said, his voice trembling. "Guilford will forever honor the memory of this native son."
Later, with full military honors, daisies, carnations and roses were placed in the family plot in front of a brownstone wall in the historic Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven, where generations of war heroes and patriots are buried.
Brig. Gen. Michael Eyre pinned the Bronze Star on a crisply folded American flag and presented it to Eaton's parents, Richard S. Eaton and Sharon Noble Eaton. The medal is the highest honor among a series of awards that have recognized Eaton's years of service, including an Army Commendation, an Army Service Ribbon, the National Defense Service Medal and an Overseas Service Ribbon.
In The First Congregational Church, Eyre had described Eaton's as "a life too short."
"But he was doing something that he loved, and that is serving this nation with pride," Eyre said.
Messages from his fellow soldiers, read aloud, described him as having "unfathomably vast" knowledge of the intelligence field, and as someone who will be remembered as a "foundation stone" of their unit.
A military chaplain, Kevin Cavanaugh, said Eaton had "escaped death" on Sept. 11, 2001, when he was working for the Department of Defense. Eaton's usual office, at the Pentagon, was destroyed in the terrorist attacks. But, at the time, it was being remodeled and Eaton was working outside the Pentagon.
He had been in the Middle East since March, deployed with the 323rd Military Intelligence Battalion, based in Fort Meade, Md.
Early indications are that Eaton, who died in his sleep, suffered pulmonary edema. His death remains under investigation, and it is not yet clear whether it was caused by a strain of pneumonia that has killed other servicemen in Iraq.
Several hundred people attended the funeral, including state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and Lawrence DeNardis, president of the University of New Haven, where the elder Eaton is a spokesman.