By Margaret Downing


Members and Vietnam vets of “Operation Fallen Flags” are pictured outside of Gigi’s Playhouse, 8801 N. Second St. in Machesney Park on July 20. The guys were there that day to give a patriotic and civic history lesson to Gigi clients. Shown from left are: Rondo Pohl, Dale Pohl, Nick Parnello, Steve Spencer, Mike Rotolo, Wally Watson, Herbert Bolding, Matt Cacci, Preston Cash, Ramrod Cash, Ed McCompton, abd Terry Coffman.

Members of the “Operation Fallen Flags” group (“The Smoke Brothers”) were on hand July 20 at Gigi’s Playhouse, a local “Down Syndrome Achievement Center” located at 8801 N. Second St. in Machesney Park to do a presentation to its young adult clients. The group’s goal is to teach young people about our country’s flag…what it stands for, its history, and why we honor it.

Gigi’s (also known as Gigi U), offers “a progressive learning program for adults with Down Syndrome.”

Executive Director Karen Carlson explains that the organization, which is a tax-exempt organization (501-C3) has 54 locations nationwide, including Mexico. Locally five counties are represented in the Machesney Park’s center with clients coming from Winnebago, Boone, Ogle, Stephenson and DeKalb Counties and currently serves approximately 375 clients. The adults are taught how to live independently but those who come to the center range in age from babies on up. Go to for more information.

The following information comes from the group’s website,

“Who are the Smoke Brothers and what do they do? They are the heart of Operation Fallen Flags, they are all volunteers – and they do everything.

“The Smoke Brothers teach school kids the history of the American flag. They drive The Glory Truck to the LZ Peace Memorial at Midway Village for veterans ceremonies. And they are the ones who maintain The Glory Truck – getting things fixed, performing all the maintenance, and doing all the washing and waxing. “Wax on. Wax off.”

“These guys see what needs to be done, and they do it. Nothing ever gets done by itself – someone has to do it. All the hard work, the time spent, and everything else – the Smoke Brothers are the ones who do it…a true band of brothers who get a lot done and occasionally enjoy a cigar together.

“How many Smoke Brothers are there? Somewhere around thirty, and like all true superheroes, they have cool names: Sierra 6, Charlie 6, Seabee, Sergeant Friendship, Mr. Marine, Airborne, LT, Johnny One Wing, Senior Chief, Sergeant Huey, Sergeant Walley, Boonie, Captain Mike, Air Force 1, Angel 6, Cuzin Helo, Marine 1, Sergeant Jerry, Diamond 6, Marine, Sergeant Santo, Eagle 6, Sergeant Tango, Ramrod, Sergeant Mike Mike, Master Chief, Sergeant Alpha, Sergeant Pic, Sky Captain, Skipper, Captain Ken, and Blackjack 6.

“Most of them are military veterans. But a few are not. There might be a Smoke Brother living next door to you. You have probably walked past some of these real-life superheroes and didn’t even know it.

“The Smoke Brothers are the real thing. The real deal. They are unsung heroes, keeping American flags flying high. They do what they do because it’s the right thing to do. And they have fun doing it.

“The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning. (United States Flag Code): The Smoke Brothers, who run Operation Fallen Flags and make up the crew of The Glory Truck, take those words very seriously.

“Those words mean that when a U.S. flag becomes tattered, torn, weather-beaten, or otherwise unfit for duty, it should be properly retired – not just thrown in the trash.

“Unfortunately, many people who fly the flag don’t always notice when their flag has become worn out and often aren’t sure what to do when they finally notice it.

“That’s why the Smoke Brothers do what they do. When they notice a U.S. flag that is no longer “a fitting emblem for display,” they will contact the owner of the flag, and offer to retire the worn-out flag and replace it with a new one.

“The crew will roll up in The Glory Truck in all its red-white-and-blue glory – ride the truck’s 30-foot boom into the air, take down the old flag, replace it with a new one – and properly store the old flag until it’s time to retire it during their Flag Day ceremony at the LZ Peace Memorial at Midway Village in Rockford. Operation Fallen Flags has retired and replaced American flags at people’s houses and at small businesses in and around Rockford.

Nick Parnello, known as Blackjack 6, is a Vietnam veteran who woke up one morning with a dream still in his head. “We need to replace all the worn, torn, and tattered American flags from sea to shining sea. We’ll start right here in Rockford and see where we end up.

“Nick was also concerned about the high suicide rate among veterans – especially younger veterans – and he saw that a veteran-centered organization dedicated to replacing American flags would be a great way to bring younger veterans together with older veterans for some fun, public service, and camaraderie.

“So Nick enlisted a bunch of his friends, mostly Vietnam veterans, the Smoke Brothers, some Afghan and Iraqi veterans, and a few civilians.

“Nick told Airborne, one of the Smoke Brothers, about his idea, and Airborne said he knew where they could find the truck they needed. It had once been owned by ‘Red’ Nicholson of Nicholson Electric. Now it belonged to Red’s grandson, Sergeant Navy. He and Nick struck a deal, and this wonderful old 1989 Chevrolet boom truck came out of retirement and began a new life.

“It wasn’t too long before they realized that a great truck needed a great name for a great mission, and they named it The Glory Truck.”

The LZ (Landing Zone) Peace Memorial, which is “a place of honor” to Vietnam War veterans, is located adjacent to the Rockford Museum Center and Midway Village, is worth a visit, especially for young people as a Huey helicopter is on display, along with the Agent Orange Memorial, honoring those veterans who died of its effects, usually many years after the end of the war.

For more information on what these veterans do through Operation Fallen Flags, call 815-968-1040.

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