Allen Filloon of Rock Falls joined the U.S. Army out of high school and was stationed in Korea for about a year.
On Tuesday, after a wait prolonged by COVID-19 mitigation measures, he got to see the memorial dedicated to the Korean War in Washington, D.C. — all while in the company with other Sterling American Legion Post 296 members.
It was breathtaking and meaningful, and according to his daughter Lynnsey Larson of Sterling, a chance to share as he never had before.
“Each and every stop we made was so special and important,” said Larson, who accompanied her father on the journey. “My dad would have a history or life lesson at every stop.“
Larson couldn’t say enough in gratitude for Honor Flight of Quad Cities for making the trip possible.
“He was in tears and so thankful to get the welcome home they never got,” she said. “He gave me a hug and told me ‘thank you’ for going with him and helping make the day one he’ll never forget.
For so many of the 102 veterans on the Honor Flight, it was a special day, starting with it being Election Day.
“We’re voting today because of these guys,” said retired Army Lt. Col. Stephen Garrington, commander of Honor Flight of the Quad Cities 55, who had been involved with all the expeditions since the chapter started in 2008.
Veterans from Whiteside, Lee, Rock Island, Carroll and Clinton counties were accompanied by 65 guardians and a crew of volunteers. Most of the veterans had served in Korea or Vietnam.
For some, it was their first visit to the nation’s capital. Even for those who’d been there before, it had been decades, and so much had changed in the intervening years.
Gary Farral of Erie, a Whiteside County Honor Flight Committee member, said: “There’s nothing better than taking veterans to D.C. to see the monuments the nation has established to thank them for their service. Further, to remember the comrades, male and female, whose lives were taken from them.”
The trip started with a traditional sending-off ceremony and breakfast at the Quad Cities International Airport before boarding Sun Country Airlines for a 90-minute flight.
Upon arrival at Dulles International Airport, the flight was welcomed by schoolchildren, government officials and locals carrying signs and flags, all cheering, clapping, and thanking the veterans for their service.
For many, they were holding back tears while walking through the concourse to the charter buses and a police escort for the day.
The first stop was to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, where historic aircraft and spacecraft are on display in an open hangar. Exhibits include the Discovery space shuttle, a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, wartime aircraft, commercial planes, satellites, early flight relics and even missiles and Goddard rockets.
The buses next circled the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, a statue based on the iconic photograph depicting six soldiers raising the second American flag at Iwo Jima. Visits to Arlington National Cemetery and a view of the Military Women’s Memorial followed.
At the latter, U.S. Navy veteran Jean Ahlrichs of Durant, Iowa, the only female veteran on this trip, was presented a certificate and photo.
The group then watched the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and many paid respects to the nearby grave of World War II legend Audie Murphy.
At the National Mall, a group photo was taken in front of the Lincoln Memorial before they all dispersed to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Korean War Veterans Memorial. They were also witness to an event that only occurs every five years – the Reading of the Names at The Wall, which takes place for 63 hours over four days, with hundreds of volunteers reading the names aloud. This year marks the 40th anniversary of The Wall.
The group arrived at the World War II Memorial as the sun was setting, where they honored Larry Wiersema with his flag at the Illinois pillar. The group had brought three flags representing three deceased veterans.
The final stop of the day was the U.S. Air Force Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, where they were treated to a scenic view of the Pentagon. They then watched as the November full moon rose over the city.
“The day was totally awesome. The weather was perfect, and everyone enjoyed themselves and loved it,” said U.S. Army Vietnam veteran Dennis “Jake” Bubelis of La Salle. Being in the company of a brotherhood of soldiers and sharing their stories along the way made it a profound experience, he said.
Thanks to Garrington’s historical knowledge and quippy humor — and “doing it the Army way” to muster the contingent along — the attentive details of the day added up to a phenomenal experience.
While on the flight home, Garrington and team delivered packages of handwritten letters, an homage to mail calls during their days of service.
Back in Moline, hundreds greeted the weary crew – family, friends, Patriot Guard Riders, and grateful citizens cheered and waved flags, giving the veterans a different experience, this time around.
“Welcome home,” Garrington said as he shook each hand.
Eric Swanson of the Patriot Guard Riders said the group has been in attendance for send-offs and returns of all 55 flights, and hopes the community continues to come out and support the veterans as they are welcomed home with love and appreciation.
Gerald Mortensen of Wilton, Iowa, said the welcoming at the airport topped off an unforgettable day.
“It made my two tours in Vietnam worth it,” he said, reflecting on the love and support.
As the veterans said their goodbyes and expressed their gratitude to Garrington for the trip of a lifetime, he said to each one, without hesitation, “You’re worth it!” The volunteer organization is already planning for four flights that will take place in 2023.
“I and all the volunteers do this with one thought in mind – it’s all about the veteran. Our mission is to really support and uplift these veterans and we do it through the Honor Flight,” Garrington said.