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The welcome home many vets never got

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Nineteen World War II veterans and another 29 from the Korean War were welcomed home for a second time Saturday.

This time people they don’t know were cheering, waving flags and running up to shake their hands, take their picture and thank them for their service. That was a first for most. There was more to it than that. There was a bagpiper and drum corps to greet them at Green Airport and a full day of visiting the World War II, Korean and Vietnam War memorials in Washington, DC as well at Arlington National Cemetery. Throughout there was a guardian at their side to help them in and out of a wheelchair if they needed it and there to guide them so they could make a “pit stop” at the next restroom. The entire experience was free for them.

Saturday was the 16th Honor Flight run by the Rhode Island Association of Fire Chiefs since retired Providence Chief George Farrell saw an Honor Flight in Washington and witnessed the reaction of veterans and people around him. That was in 2010 and at a following association board meeting he told the group “we’ve got to do this.”

George hasn’t slowed down since then nor have a core group that have got the flight down to a science even to the point of retaining National Park Police to make certain flights run like clockwork. The police, I was told have jurisdiction in Maryland, DC and Virginia and they use it to cut through gridlock. Flight organizers call it “the parting of the Red Sea,” and, indeed, motorists moved over, or if traffic was at a standstill drove off the road to the arm waving of a park policemen riding a motorcycle, lights flashing and siren blaring. It made everyone feel special, particularly as stopped motorists craned to get a glimpse of these “important” people.

The feeling that someone cares, even if they were stateside during the war and never in danger, is such a big part of Honor Flight.

I found that the case interviewing veterans and guardians during prior flights as they staged at the Warwick fire station next to Ann & Hope to be escorted to the airport. Veterans told me stories that, in many cases, their guardians and even their families had never heard. Here I was, a total stranger, gleaning information kept silent all these years.

It’s not extraordinary to Wayne Moore, who has been on all but one of the Rhode Island Honor Flights. Wayne and I sat together on Saturday’s Southwest flights to and from BWI Airport. Wayne said guardians recount that family members are totally surprised to find dad, or it may be grandpa, pull out a box of photographs and letters they have never seen or hear a story for a first time.

My father, who served in Burma and China behind enemy lines during World War II, was like that. He refrained from talking about the experience until much later in life. I thought it was a holdover from the war and the discipline not to share information. The admonition “loose lips sink ships” comes to mind. That may be part of it, but after talking to many veterans Saturday, I think the greater part of it is what former senator and World War II veteran Robert Dole said at the observance of the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Midway. Selfies

Thanks to the Park Police we arrived at the World War II Memorial in time to hear Dole speak. He told a story of finding a stick-like device and inquiring of younger family members what it was used for. The answer was that it takes “selfies.” Selfies are foreign to the generation that fought World War II, he said. Their first thought was the country. Dole said 16.5 million Americans fought in the war of which only 500,000 are still living. They are dying at the rate of 1,000 a day.

“They were the greatest because of their willingness to sacrifice for their country,” Dole said.

That has been a motivator for Farrell, who is looking to get as many veterans to Washington before it is too late. Since taking the lead for Rhode Island, more than 400 veterans have taken an Honor Flight. With the numbers of WWII vets declining, Honor Flight is turning to Korean War vets. In some special circumstances, such as terminal illness, Vietnam vets have also made the flight.

On Saturday, Farrell and other key leaders including Steve Hay, Rick and Holly Susi, Ken Finlay and Julie Latessa were talking dates for the 17th flight in the fall. They are also planning for the first major Honor Flight fundraiser. Up until this point they have depended largely on corporate and organizational sponsorship. Some of the financing has come as friends and family members of veterans have learned of the experience and mount an effort to raise the $25,000 to $35,000 it takes to send 25 to 50 veterans on a flight. Guardians pay their own way. Ocean State Job Lot, with the help of customer donations, sponsored more than one flight and has helped with supplies. Also as a result of connections to a veteran who went on a flight, Moore said the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers learned of what they were doing and came forward with $10,000. Since that first donation, the Electrical Workers has raised at least $40,000 more.

Veteran recruiting efforts have likewise brought in contributions. After Farrell visited Brookdale West Bay to talk about the flight, personnel at the assisted living facility mounted a campaign to buy wheelchairs. Word spread and Centreville Bank stepped up with a major contribution to make it happen. Centreville was also the major sponsor of Saturday’s flight.

Farrell and the team have the flight down to a well-timed and smooth-operating event to the point of anticipating needs and emergencies. On the flight down, WWII Army veteran John Lynch, who was in the second wave to reach the beaches of Normandy, stood to bump his head on the overhead compartment. It opened a sore and there was some bleeding. In moments Timothy Walsh, who with Joseph Glaude serve as medics on the flights, was there with a bag of medical supplies. He assessed the situation with Lynch insisting he’d be fine.

After a welcome from members of the military and the spontaneous cheering and applause of people at BWI, followed by a “pit stop” where guardians wheeled veterans – many also walked – to the buses where the chairs had to be folded and stowed. Time for a snack

Once on the road, Rick Susi took the microphone to outline the day’s activities. As he finished, his wife Holly inquired whether it was time for a snack break.

“We’re all about food,” said Rick as Holly got out the boxes of bagged cookies and crackers. Bottles of cold water were passed around.

Holly also videoed scenes from the trip, posting them on the Honor Flight website where they were picked up by TV stations in Rhode Island. Likewise providing updates to family members, guardians texted and sent photos. The vets recorded the moment, some using their phones, but many with disposable film cameras. Capitol TV also accompanied this flight and will be broadcasting interviews and a story.

While the trip was about visiting war monuments and reflecting and telling of experiences, it was also about the moment and today. For WWII veteran Don Larkin, a highlight was talking with Dole and as brief as it was, sharing words about where they served and where their lives after the war had taken them. Dole was a magnet, and soon after talking with Larkin vets gathered around him to have their photos taken.

Every veteran I spoke with had stories from their service. Yet the day was also about making memories. One of those moments for me was following Korean War veterans Alan Hopenberg and his guardian Julie Latessa to see the “Kilroy Was Here” etching in one of the granite stones of the WWII memorial.

Julie lined Alan up for a picture.

“I didn’t know you had teeth, you don’t smile much,” she said.

“I have two or three of them,” he replied.

“Wooden ones, like George Washington?”

“Yes,” replied Alan, “the same dentist.”

Julie had the group in hysterics after dinner when there’s mail call. A lot of effort goes into mail call. Photographs from when the veteran served – such as that of Korean War veteran Donald Conlon painting the name of a pilot’s sweetheart on the fuselage of a bomber – along with letters written by family, friends and, in some cases, guardians go into the pouches. Wearing a blue polka-dotted dress, her hair done up with a red flower and wearing red shoes, Julie delivered the mail, running between tables exclaiming, “I know you’re out there, don’t you hide from me.” She’d find her vet, give him a hug and a smack on the cheek that left the imprint of the lipstick she refreshed between runs. The frivolity continued when she got some of the vets to dance.

Farrell said he’d continue running the Honor Flights as long as he can.

“It changes lives and it’s going to change yours,” he says to the guardians. He said hearing veterans say they are getting the welcome home they never received makes it worth it.

There’s so much more to Honor Flights. Even in such a brief time, there’s a trust and bond between guardian and vet and within the larger group that transcends the occasion. For me, it was witnessing the commitment and caring of those who have come together to make these flights possible and the trust veterans put in sharing their experiences to open doors to their feelings and a time of terror, pain, courage and even boredom.

I can’t leave out humility. I was reminded of that as a tired and quiet group waited to board our flight back to Green.

“John,” rang out the voice of one Korean War veteran who had told me of being shot down and held as a POW. I went over assuming he needed my help. He looked up at me from his wheelchair.

“Those things I told you,” he said. “Don’t put them in a story.”

Dole is right. This is not a generation of selfies.

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