Jerry Gallagher joins his father on Honor Flight - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Jerry Gallagher joins his father on Honor Flight

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WASHINGTON, D.C. (KWWL) -

Two words that are easy to say too often get lost in the shuffle, and we're reminded of how important they are on a day like Tuesday: Veterans Day.

On Veterans Day, saying thank you to those who have served can come in many forms.

One organization goes to great lengths, from eastern Iowa to the nation's capital.

The Eastern Iowa Honor Flight takes World War II, Korean and Vietnam War veterans to Washington, D.C., to see their memorials for free.

One Iowa veteran recently made the trip to honor two others would could not go.

Don Gallagher will turn 90 next week. He's a father of eight and a Korean War-era veteran. He has seen a lot in his nine decades, but he has no idea what's ahead of him on this day.

Don, along with 81 other veterans, will board the Eastern Iowa Honor Flight for Washington, D.C., a city Don has never seen.

At Reagan National Airport, perfect strangers greet this group of Iowans as if they've been friends for life.

"Nice to see you people come out. That's great. That's great. We didn't expect this," says Gallagher as he shakes hands with several people in the crowd cheering on the veterans.

The first stop in Washington is at the World War II Memorial.

"I think I see somebody," says Gallagher, who is surprised by three of his nieces. They landed in Washington before he did.

"Quite a reunion. I wish the brothers could be here," says Gallagher.

Don's two older brothers, Daryl and Cyril, both World War II veterans, are being honored on this day through a special program called "Flags of Our Heroes."

Daryl's son, Gene, joins Don in a private ceremony, saluting two men who died before they could see their own memorial.

"I wanted some way to honor my dad," says Sara Beck, who first learned of "Flags of Our Heroes" a year ago. "I thought, 'That's it. That's what I want to do.'"

Her dad, Cyril Gallagher, born in Brooklyn, Iowa, was an air traffic controller in the U.S. Army. "I'm just so proud of him."

Cyril's brother, Daryl, was in Normandy.

"He had a rough go. He really did. There were 160 guys in his outfit, and only seven of them came back," says Don Gallagher.

Daryl did come home, perhaps thanks to a divine roadside intervention.

As the story goes, he was in a convoy in Normandy and spotted someone selling rosary beads, which he wanted for his mother.

"He got out and they were hit by fire, and he always told the story that those rosary beads saved his life that day," said Beck.

"He surely did his part. He really did, and Cyril did too," says Gallagher.

"He would've just loved today," says Beck, when talking about her father, Cyril. "He's saying, 'Wow, look at what they did. Look at what they did for me,' but it's the least I could do for him."

From there, a whirlwind tour of war memorials: Korean, Vietnam, the brand new Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial near Capitol Hill.

"Isn't Arlington Cemetery immense?" asks Gallagher.

This could be the most unforgettable stop. The silence at the changing of the guard ceremony is deafening in a way that's hard to describe unless you witness it yourself.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is guarded all day, every day. Don's nephew, Gene, is one of those selected for the wreath-laying ceremony.

"I'll remember this the rest of my life," says Gallagher.

As he stopped at memorial after memorial, his thoughts turned to sacrifice and his own service.

"My orders had come down to go overseas, and I was in an automobile accident in Indianapolis riding with a buddy of mine. By the time I got out of the hospital, they said, 'It's too late to send you over there,'" says Gallagher.

His service time was about up, but there's no time clock on his sense of humor.

"I fought a lot of battles in the United States: Indianapolis, Fort Worth, Dallas, Aurora, Cincinnati. I was in a lot of tough battles," says Gallagher.

For the most part, his focus is on those who did serve in the foxholes. And as he leaves Washington with the rest of the Iowa crew, he's thanking them for their service.

There's just enough time for one more revelation.

One thousand people line the Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids to welcome the veterans home.

"We never expected this," says Gallagher.

One man in the crowd says, "You deserve it."

"Well, thank you," says Gallagher.

As the music ends and well-wishers say good-night, Don pauses at the airport to reflect on a day he would call one of the greatest in his life.

A private moment with a letter, one of about two dozen he received on the flight home, reads, "Grandpa, Thank you for serving the country in the Korean War. I love you to Korea and back a million, zillion times. They could not have done it without you. What's it like to serve in a war? I really can't imagine serving in the Korean War or any war. Love, your granddaughter, Maddie."

"It's been an overwhelming day, an overwhelming day," said Gallagher.

This was the 18th flight to Washington since the Eastern Iowa Honor Flight started making the trip five years ago. It's a non-profit that depends on donations to make these trips happen.

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