MARION -- This past Tuesday marked Mission 005 for the Honor Flight of Southern Illinois, carrying 83 veterans to Washington, D.C., for a whirlwind visit that included war memorials, Arlington National Cemetery, and other national landmarks.
While many of the vets described the day as "amazing," the preparations for the welcome-home ceremony are nothing short of that.
Volunteers come from across Southern Illinois to help.
Adam Little of McLeansboro brought his food truck, "CPT. Catfish & Sgt. Taters" to the event.
"We came last year and helped," said Little, a former U.S. Marine who has been in the food truck business since 2012. "This year, they asked if we would set up.
Little said 10% of all sales go back to the Honor Flight.
A trio from Heartland Regional Medical Center was helping inside with crowd control. Lori Daine, Carlos Gonzalez, and Shelly Fred have all volunteered multiple times for the duty.
"It's our way to honor all the people who have given service or even their lives for us," said Daine.
Scouts from around the region were on hand to help with escorting the veterans through the sea of several thousand who packed Veterans Airport to welcome the heroes home.
However, some of the most "amazing" parts of the trip were the vets themselves.
For three brothers from Johnston City, it was the trip of a lifetime.
The Fairbanks brothers -- Charles, Orville "Artie," and Jim, made that trip together.
"I was the one that really got the ball rolling," said Charles, the youngest, at 82, who now makes his home in Marion.
It didn't take much for Artie and Jim to agree, and three were booked for the trip.
Jim, the oldest at 86, still resides in his hometown. He quit school in his senior year, right after football season, to join the Army. He was sent to Korea but came home a year later when his father was killed in the Orient Mine disaster.
Artie, now 84, followed in Jim's footsteps, having also joined the U.S. Army. He was sent to Colorado and eventually landed in Germany.
Charles chose to join the Marines in 1956. He served in Hawaii as an aviation mechanic until 1959. He reenlisted in 1961 during the Cuban missile crisis.
After their time in the military, the three brothers chose different paths. Jim stayed in Johnston City, Charles eventually made Marion his home, and Artie moved to Chicago before settling in Arizona.
Charles said he was told by others that the trip was something he would never forget.
"That much is true," he said. "You name it, we saw it. It was impressive."
"It was very tiring, but well worth it."
Artie said his favorite stop was Arlington, where the group saw the changing of the guard at the tomb of the unknown soldier.
"That's a very solemn ceremony, very disciplined," said Artie. "It's a big honor for the guards, totally military."
Even with all the impressive sights, the best part of the trip, according to the brothers, was the return.
"I will never forget it, not in my lifetime," said Artie. "It was very moving, especially the kids. The scouts were fantastic. I was a scout, too. I really appreciated that."
The brothers had three special surprises waiting when he returned. Their sister, Judy, came from Chicago for the ceremony, as did Artie's granddaughter, Kathy Fairbanks, and his great-granddaughter, Lillian, from Arizona.
Billy Rogers of Du Quoin is a nephew of the three brothers.
"We couldn't be more proud," he said. "You have no idea how much this means. It's brought them closer together, and they've always been close."
The special moments did not end there. Army veteran Jim Whyte of Eldorado was honored to have his friend, Tom Clore, also of Eldorado, as his guardian. Clore was in on a surprise for Whyte while the group was in D.C..
"I was sitting there eating in front of the Lincoln Memorial," said Whyte. "Someone came up and sat down and asked if I was supposed to be here."
That "someone" was Whyte's son, Matthew, who was working in Washington that day.
Robert Mcharry of Tamms described the experience as "phenomenal." He even made a new friend, his guardian, Robert Goines, of Anna. Mcharry was a "double veteran," serving in both the Air Force and the Navy. Goines is a Navy vet.
None of the veterans had to pay for their passage. The money is raised through various sources and contributions. However, this mission was extraordinary in that respect. Mary Chew of Carbondale donated $83,000 to cover the cost of the entire trip, to honor six veterans in her family.
Artie said he and his brothers had an opportunity to speak with and thank Chew, who went along on the trip.
"It was very, very nice of her," said Artie. "I think she had a good time yesterday, too."