MILITARY heroes will be back in Quincy this year for the ninth annual Fishing for Freedom weekend, which has become a tradition for boaters, participants and a large group of local supporters.
Last year the event honored about 300 U.S. veterans and active military personnel. Honorees got to go fishing, shoot trap, join with fellow veterans at a heroes banquet and experience the appreciation of a thankful community. All of the activities and accommodations are provided at no charge to the veterans.
"This takes a full year of planning, but it is a labor of love for all involved," Holly Cain, director of the Quincy Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, told The Herald-Whig. "Seeing the effect it has on the veterans, the camaraderie ... and the friendships that develop -- and last -- is amazing."
It also has been amazing to see the growth of Fishing for Freedom.
Although there are other Fishing for Freedom gatherings around the nation, none has grown like the one in Quincy. The first local celebration was in 2011, attracting 68 participants. By 2017 the attendance topped 200. Last year it hit the 300 mark, thanks in part to the inclusion of those who were interested at the Illinois Veterans Home, where fishing was possible at Lake Illinois on the sprawling campus.
Registration has begun for this year's festivities to be held May 31 to June 2. Organizers say by April 15 they hope to sign up about 300 boaters, who can take the veterans on fishing trips on the Mississippi River and other bodies of water in West-Central Illinois or Northeast Missouri. Veterans also can sign up.
Although fishing sounds like it is the central theme of the weekend, attendees consistently say the thanks they receive for their service and sacrifices are the most meaningful.
Bob Blessing of LaGrange, Mo., has been piloting his boat for the event for the past seven years. Blessing said the annual celebration helps let the veterans know that someone remembers and cares.
"Being a Vietnam veteran, we were not welcomed home, and the first Fishing for Freedom banquet that I attended, the Vietnam veterans were recognized. Myself, along with the other Vietnam vets that were recognized, it was like a long time coming, and it has really meant a lot," Blessing told The Herald-Whig last year.
Organizers have been told the Quincy Fishing for Freedom brings in nearly as many veterans as a similar event held near Fort Hood, Texas. They usually respond that this is not a competition about attendance.
If veterans feel appreciated and respected, the hundreds of volunteers who make Fishing for Freedom possible say the celebration will be a huge success.
People who want to help honor the veterans can register at FishingForFreedomQuincy.org or get information at 217-779-3811.