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Honor Flight has a lasting impact

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The name jumped off the rooster of the 48 World War II and Korean veterans for the June 3 Rhode Island Honor Flight: Giovanni Migliaccio.

Could he be related to the Migliaccios who once owned my house in Conimicut? I planned to find out by the end of the flight. Actually, I didn’t need to wait that long. I connected with John and his daughter, Donna, who was serving as his guardian shortly after our Southwest flight touched down at BWI and before boarding buses, with an escort of National Park Police who opened the highway like the parting of the Red Sea, to start our tour of war memorials in the nation’s capital.

Donna had a surprise for John. She and her sisters, Paula and Shirley, had arranged to make the Honor Flight a little more special. Donna’s sons, Mike and Dave, and Shirley were all waiting for John with signs and cheers once he was outside airport security. John, who has macular degeneration, thought his eyes might be playing tricks on him at first. He was thrilled to see them, and their presence surely added luster to a day that he excitedly recalls.

I soon learned while he shared the last name, John wasn’t a member of the family that owned my house long before I bought it in 1975. But there was a proximity of another nature that reinforced the axiom that Rhode Islanders are only separated by two degrees. John lives at the Warwick Housing Authority Shawomet Terrace, a scant block away from me.

Unannounced, I decided Saturday to see if I could find him – first of all to make good on a promise that I’d see him after the Honor Flight and second to thank him for the note he sent following publication of the Honor Flight story. As I approached the entrance to the terrace, I could see a woman at her second floor window.

“Good morning,” I said. She looked confused that I should be talking to her, so I repeated the salutation. She echoed my words. Then I asked if she knew the residents and John. She shook her head, disappearing.

This wasn’t going to be easy, I figured, but I proceeded into the lobby. Barely 30 seconds later, John buzzed me in and he was opening the door with a smile.

John is 87, which is hard to believe. He looks much younger, and while he says he has arthritis he moves around his apartment with ease. He feels lucky to have the place. More than two years ago after his wife passed he put his name on a list for Meadowbrook Terrace, hopeful of an opening. But then in a twist of fate Donna learned from a friend at O’Rourke’s Bar and Grill in Pawtuxet last December that a unit had become available at Shawomet. As soon as he saw the space, John said he knew it was meant to be. In a matter of weeks, he sold his home and by January was moved in.

It has a homey feel with yellow curtains, family pictures and a grandmother clock. John showed off all the space he has from the kitchen larder to his bedroom closet.

What does he do with his time?

John filled me in. He walks around the complex, visits the activities room where he talks with other tenants and does some cooking, especially if he knows family will be visiting. John was a cook in the Army serving in Okinawa where soldiers assembled and trained before deployment to Korea. He and his kitchen crew served up meals daily for two companies.

Just to have something to go with coffee, he’ll bake up some cookies for his daughters who stop in once or twice a week. They’ll go out, do some shopping and often grab something to eat. John used to do Tuesday evening dinners at the Pilgrim Senior Center but hasn’t felt compelled to go back. He reads using a machine that projects the enlarged text on a screen, a gift from a friend who had bought a new one.

It was the Honor Flight that made for conversation. John retrieved an album Donna assembled, detailing the daylong trip as I turned the pages.

“I don’t know how they found out I went to Veazie Street School [in Providence],” he said. I wasn’t sure what that had to do with it and then John produced three letters written by students. The letters along with photographs from the service and notes from family and friends were delivered during “mail call” after dinner and before boarding the plane to return to Rhode Island.

“You gave a lot by being away from home and putting yourself in danger,” reads a letter penned by Brianna. John has written back to all three children, sending his letters to the school principal who he expects will deliver them when school resumes.

The mail call stands out as a highlight of the trip and, naturally, the applause and recognition the veterans received wherever they went. John credits the success of the program to George Farrell and his volunteers and the fact they run it like the military. The June Honor Flight was the 16th conducted by the Rhode Island Association of Fire Chiefs.

John didn’t stay in touch with those he served alongside. His service is an individual experience faded by time. The Honor Flight rekindled memories, but more importantly it has shown a light on the value of the service John rendered. It has given added meaning to the time he served this country. John says he has gained so much from the Honor Flight and urges World War II and Korean veterans to sign up.

For me, the flight introduced me to many wonderful people, both veterans and those looking to honor our veterans, including a neighbor. I plan to follow up on his invitation for coffee and cookies.

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