Nick Parnello and the Smoke Brothers

It may sound like the name of a ’60s singing group, but this Band of Brothers is very serious about commemorating the sacrifices of local veterans.

Nick Parnello is a veteran’s veteran. He’s also the proud father of six and grandfather of 23. Ever since his return from a tour of duty in Vietnam in May 1969, the Rockford native has been on a mission to honor and support local veterans, especially those who served in that bloody war.

Just before leaving Vietnam, Parnello connected by chance with another Rockfordian, Joey Falzone. As they shared memories of home, both men pledged to meet again some day for a steak dinner at Maria’s in Rockford. That promise grew into a monthly tradition that continues to this day.

Nick “Blackjack 6” Parnello

“It was like heaven,” recalls Parnello. “Joey was, for years, the only Vietnam vet I knew, and the only one I could talk to.”

Eventually, other veterans joined the assemblage and began to call themselves the Vietnam Vets Supper Club. They discussed starting their own organization, and when they discovered the name they had chosen, Vietnam Veterans of America, was already in use, Manny Amato suggested “VietNow.”

“Why not? We all agreed,” says Parnello. “We’re now, not then. And the name stuck.”

Adopting the motto “Veterans Helping Veterans,” they soon developed volunteer programs to provide family-oriented events, hospital visits, community services, food-basket deliveries and participation in parades.

VietNow veterans march during the Independence Day parade in 2003.

“The first time we marched was on July 4, 1982,” says Parnello. “We borrowed a Jeep from Wolf Chevrolet in Belvidere. When we came down State Street, the crowd was standing up and cheering. We looked at each other and cried. We didn’t know what to do. It was so painful we couldn’t accept it. There was nothing in the world that could have touched us more than those civilians saying, ‘Thank you for your service. We love ya!’ It helped us heal.”

The organization grew rapidly, sometimes adding as many as one new member each day. They had almost 400 veterans at their monthly meetings by the time Parnello left in 1982 to concentrate on his work and other pursuits.

The following year, VietNow leadership decided to become a national organization with local chapters throughout the country. They eventually grew to include nearly two dozen chapters.

[Editor’s Note: In 2015, an investigation by the Chicago Tribune exposed major fraud in a fundraising company hired by the national organization. The headquarters in Rockford was dissolved in 2017 to settle a lawsuit brought by the Illinois attorney general. The settlement only affected the national headquarters, not the local chapters, which still exist to support Vietnam veterans.]

Parnello went on to help establish another group, the Vietnam Veterans Honor Society, which was incorporated as a nonprofit in 1989. He led them to establish a permanent memorial honoring local veterans who died in the Vietnam War. When their first plan for a site near Meridian Road west of Rockford fell through, the Rockford Park District offered land near Midway Village Museum on Guilford Road.

“They originally gave us a one-year window to complete the memorial,” says Parnello. “But it took us 10 more years to raise the $800,000 and to get it built. We’re eternally grateful to the Park District board for their patience.”

Dubbed “LZ [Landing Zone] Peace” by Parnello, the design includes a scaled-down replica of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. – an angular black granite wall, but here it’s inscribed with the names of 69 Winnebago County veterans who died during that conflict.

LZ Peace Memorial on Guilford Road.

A Huey UH-1C helicopter (which actually flew in Vietnam) was donated in 1989 by the federal Department of Defense and sits on a grassy knoll above the wall. To date, it is the second-largest memorial dedicated to Vietnam veterans in the country, second only to the D.C. Memorial. The Rockford monument was dedicated in 2005.

The Purple Heart Trail monument was dedicated at LZ Peace on Aug. 7, 2022, which puts them on a national map of similar sites.

In 2008, Manny “LT” Amato invited Parnello to share a cigar at the LZ Peace Memorial and trade stories about their wartime experiences. Thus, another tradition was born. The group grew to more than 30 members, and they periodically meet in a secluded spot behind the Wall, now called Firebase Friendship.

“We call ourselves the Smoke Brothers,” says Parnello. “The place we meet is very unique, soulful, prayerful and private.” Parnello also gives each Brother a “Nick” name. Parnello is “Blackjack Six,” in remembrance of his Huey from the war.

LZ Orange honors the local victims of Agent Orange.

A special stone named LZ Orange was erected in front of the Huey in 2015. This stone honors the victims of Agent Orange, a carcinogenic defoliant also known as dioxin that was used extensively in the jungles of Vietnam. Parnello was treated for cancer caused by Agent Orange in 1984, but he’s now cancer-free.

Also on the site is a fire pit that’s used during the annual Fallen Flags Retirement Ceremony every Flag Day. Added in 2013, it’s called LZ Glory.

Donald “Ramrod” Cash

Not all Smoke Brothers are veterans. Donald “Ramrod” Cash was recruited by Parnello while visiting the LZ Peace Memorial.

“I used to be a heavy equipment operator,” says Cash. “I told Nick I was not a veteran, but I wanted to help, so I joined in on the construction.”

Cash just missed the draft during the Vietnam War and felt a “little less” than the other Smoke Brothers because of their military service.

“It took a little bit of time before they would open up to me,” he recalls. “Then, one day Dan “CB” Burd, a Navy vet, said to me, ‘You’re in the Navy here; you’re with me. We have too many Army guys around here already.’ I’ll never forget him for that.”

Smoke Brothers reminisce at LZ Friendship behind the Vietnam Memorial.

About six years ago, Parnello had some experiences with PTSD, which included a flashback episode while riding in a helicopter during an event at the Chicago Rockford International Airport.
“All of a sudden, I’m back in ‘Nam,” he relates. “It’s scary when it happens that quickly to you. I wasn’t in control. That bothered me.”

The VA clinic put Parnello in contact with a counselor, but the experience was disappointing. “He was a Vietnam vet, too, but just sitting in a room together was kind of a downer.”

The experience helped Parnello to clarify a worrying trend: an increasing suicide rate among young veterans of wars in the Middle East. Parnello sought a way to connect younger and older war veterans.

Smoke Brothers perform the Fallen Flags Retirement Ceremony at LZ Glory each Flag Day, June 14.

He organized a service whereby the Smoke Brothers would remove and replace worn and tattered U.S. flags for free to persons or businesses whose “Old Glory” had seen better days. They acquired a 1989 GMC bucket truck, and with the help of numerous volunteers and sponsors they refurbished and repainted the truck, christening it “Miss Glory.”

The program became known as Operation Fallen Flags. Parnello estimates that, since 2018, they have replaced and/or furnished nearly 100 flags for grateful local citizens.

Curt “Airborne” Burrows

“The experience can be very moving,” says Curt “Airborne” Burrows, a member of the Smoke Brothers for the past 15 years. Burrows was an Army paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne.

“Once, we replaced a flag for a widow of a veteran who hadn’t flown it since his death,” he recalls. “When they raised the new flag, everyone started crying, even a younger vet who had recently joined the Smoke Brothers and who assisted with the installation.”

“That’s just the way I hoped the program would work,” says Parnello. “We got something positive done; it touched our hearts, got everyone talking. Vets trust each other from other wars. That’s how Fallen Flags works.”

Parnello, who was a private pilot before he was a soldier, created another inter-generational program about three years ago and called it LZ Wings. The organization obtained a small plane, a Cessna 172, which they stored at Freeport’s Albertus field. They also found a group of older pilots who are veterans of other wars and are willing to take younger war vets aloft for free rides.

Smoke Brothers raise a new flag at Lou Bachrodt Chevrolet in Rockford around March 2020.

“It’s a way to encourage these younger vets to experience friendship, camaraderie and some fun in an airplane,” says Parnello. “Afterward, over coffee and doughnuts in the hangar, they get a chance to talk to us and learn to trust us.”

Miss Glory raises the Stars & Stripes at Cottonwood Airport for Veterans Fly-in ceremonies in July.

In 2009, Operation Fallen Flags combined resources with Scott Lewandowski at Veterans Memorial Hall and the Rockford YMCA to create Y Vets, a reduced-rate membership for honorably discharged veterans who have a service-related disability. It’s yet another Parnello idea.
So, what inspired him to help create all these programs and activities?

“As a war vet, I saw a lot of tragedy and loss, but there was nothing much I could do in the U.S. Army,” says Parnello. “When I got home, I was haunted by the suffering and sacrifice of so many that I had gotten to know. My heart was inspired to do something, and I’m grateful to God who gave me the ability to do it. I still hurt from the ones I lost, but I and the great guys I met along the way are doing the best we can to say ‘Thank you’ to those vets who served so honorably for this country.”

Mr. Marine

Ed “Mr. Marine” McMahon met Nick Parnello at the Flag Day ceremony at LZ Peace in 2010, when Parnello’s scheduled speaker failed to show up.

“Do you know anything about the U.S. flag?” Parnello asked with concern.

“Sure,” replied McMahon. “I’m a Marine.”

Ed “Mr. Marine” McMahon

Since then, McMahon has given countless fact-filled talks about the flag’s history, design changes and other anecdotes at almost every Fallen Flag Retirement ceremony, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, Fourth of July, and flag replacement installation done by the Smoke Brothers.

“During the retirement ceremony, I explain that we are retiring the flag, not burning it [in protest],” says McMahon. “We are using the preferred method of burning it to dispose of it.”

His speech to high school history classes during their Stars & Stripes program (another Parnello idea) is filled with interesting facts and trivia about the American flag. For example, the flag which flew over Fort McHenry in 1814 and inspired Francis Scott Key’s “The Star Spangled Banner,” had 15 stripes, since Vermont and Kentucky had joined the original 13 colonies in the 1780s.

“In 1818, Congress decided to just add stars to the constellation for each added state and went back to 13 stripes,” says McMahon. “Adding stripes for each new state was too unwieldy.”

Up to 1912, there were 24 design changes to the flag. The version with 13 stripes and 48 stars stayed that way until 1959, when Alaska and Hawaii joined the Union. That year, President Eisenhower held a national contest for creating a flag with 50 stars. The design of a 17-year old high school student from Ohio, Robert Heft, was chosen the winner.

“His teacher had given him a B+ for the project,” says McMahon, “but after it was chosen by the Eisenhower Commission, he changed it to an A+.”

Parnello speaks to students at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Academy in May 2019.

McMahon also notes that there are six U.S. flags on the Moon, placed there by Apollo astronauts. Five are still standing, but one was knocked down by the lunar module blast-off.

At a veteran’s funeral, the flag which draped the coffin is precisely folded 13 times, each fold with its own symbolic meaning. Then, it’s presented to the family of the deceased.

“The flag may sometimes become torn or used for bandages of a wounded soldier, but it never gains as much meaning as when it is placed in the hands of a grieving widow, mother or family member,” says McMahon.

“Veterans comprise only 6.5% of the entire American population,” says McMahon. “They all wore different uniforms, served on land or sea or in the air, and were trained for various roles. But they all served under one flag. To a veteran, the flag is gospel.”