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Honoring service that can never take flight

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“Have you met Victor? You’ll have to meet him,” WPRI-TV reporter Kim Kalunian asked Saturday morning.

It was early, 5:17 to be exact. She filled me in quickly. Victor Colella, 96, recently appeared before Judge Frank Caprio on the TV show “Caught in Providence” on a speeding charge. He told Judge Caprio that he hadn’t been speeding and that he was taking “my boy” to cancer treatments. Video of the court appearance went viral and Kim was at Green Airport to catch up with Victor as he and other veterans set off on Honor Flight X-ray, the 24th flight conducted by the Fire Chiefs of Rhode Island Association.

As the oldest members of the flight, Victor, who served in the Army Air Corps in WWII and Louis Sala, 96, who served in the Army artillery during the war, would have the honor of placing a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery later in the day. They were accompanied by retired fire chief Kenneth Finlay and Michael Pappas, of Pappas Physical and Hand Therapy, sponsor of the flight.

I’ve lost count of the Honor Flight departures I’ve covered and I had the good fortune of joining the flight in June 2018. It’s a moving experience to witness the outpouring of appreciation of our veterans as they leave and return to Green Airport and the reaction of veterans.

It doesn’t start or stop at Green Airport. The veterans were greeted as heroes when they stepped off the plane in Baltimore and escorted by Capitol Police like foreign dignitaries as they were bused to Washington to tour the WWII, Korean and Vietnam War memorials.

Wherever we went, strangers would step up to shake a hand, pat them on the back and thank them for their service. It didn’t matter whether they’d seen the horrors of battle or been stateside, out of harm’s way, in the support of the effort. They were all veterans; all had done their share.

I’m always impressed by their modesty and sense that somehow they aren’t worthy of such recognition because theirs was such a small part of a much larger effort. On Saturday Linda Wunderler told me she had suggested to her father, Frank, a Korean War veteran, apply to go on an Honor Flight. He didn’t want to do it until this year at which point she didn’t delay and signed him up.

A Marine veteran, Frank was assigned to go to the 38th parallel, the epicenter of the war. But soon after arriving, the war was coming to an end and he was moved to serve as security at various beaches in Japan.

“We had all new equipment [weapons],” he said, which didn’t get used. He didn’t see any action and the closest he came to a life threatening situation was on the troop ship, a converted cargo vessel, that crossed the Pacific. He was in his rack in the bowels of the ship when they were hit by a severe storm. He recalled waking up to find water sloshing as a crewmember made his way forward. In a matter of fact tone, the crewman revealed the storm had “split” the bow of the boat; water was pouring in.

Frank questioned shouldn’t they get topside.

“Don’t worry about it, if you don’t get out you won’t know the difference,” he recalled being told. Frank went topside.

Linda listened, intrigued. In all these years she had never heard the story.

Perhaps it is the camaraderie of an Honor Flight; the bringing together of those who share the common bond of service, that opens that box so full of memories.

I talked with John Fish, a WWII Army Air Corps veteran who served as the radio operator aboard a C-47 cargo plane. His daughter, Linda Taillon, served as his guardian. There was no doubt he was looking forward to the experience as we rode the bus from the fire station next to Ann & Hope where all those on the flight gather to be escorted by police, fire trucks and the Patriot Guard Riders to the airport.

He didn’t want to make a big deal of his role in the war.

“I didn’t have any hair raising experiences…I got out pretty good,” he said. Linda reminded him that others in his squadron weren’t so lucky. John’s smile faded. He had lost friends.

“We have two days of medication,” Linda said changing the subject and opening her purse to show me a plastic container filled with pills. “They think of everything.”

That’s the trademark of George Farrell, the retired Providence Fire Chief and the backbone to the Rhode Island Honor Flight. George and his corps of steadfast volunteers have thought of every possible contingency of the daylong event including being stuck in Washington for a couple of days. A medic accompanies the group and there are wheelchairs for veterans just in case they need it. Many start the day too proud to use them, but are thankful to have them as the day wears on.

On their return to Green Saturday, 100 Cadets from the Coast Guard Academy lined both sides of arrival gate to welcome them home…another one of those things that the George crew arranged.

Veterans don’t pay for the flights that have been sponsored by a number of local companies and groups. Pappas Physical and Hand Therapy was the sponsor of Flight X-ray.

As the oldest in the flight, Victor and Louis led the group as they entered the terminal. George Farrell darted ahead waving his arms – the signal to the RI Professional Firefighters Pipes and Drums standing ready in their plaid kilts, caps and boots. The music brought everyone to life. The police and fire honor guards snapped to attention, family, scouts, people planning to catch flights of their own lined the way, applauding and jumping out to get photos and videos on their phones. The scene was repeated after the vets and guardians cleared security and they were escorted to the Southwest gate where coffee, donuts and muffins awaited their arrival.

I found Victor and Louis waiting to lead off the group. It provided me the chance to ask them a few questions, although there was hardly time to get into their war experiences. Guardian David Sayles, one of Farrell’s faithful, gave me a heads up on Louis.

“He probably knows more about computers than both of us,” David said. Louis said he has a smartphone, iPad and computer. He spends much of his day on the computer and he under a self-made rule does not to turn on the TV until 7:30 p.m. On the other hand, he’s talking with Alexa early in the morning. His request is to play songs from the 1940s and 50s.

The focus on covering veterans is frequently on their war experiences and not their lives afterward. Louis owned a restaurant in Florida a career path that started as a youth working for a catering company and later managing it. He later started a candy store in Queens, although I didn’t have the time to connect the dots and find out how he got from Florida to New York or how he landed in Wakefield, where he is today. I did learn that he is a foodie and loves visiting restaurants. He put Hemmingway high on his list of favorites.

I did get to talk with Victor, as Kim Kalunian suggested, but not for enough time.

His appearance on “Caught in Providence” resonates for me, because he believes he was not speeding and, even at 96 and a WWII veteran, he’s standing up for what he thinks is right. It resonates because he’s driving at 96 and because he’s driving his son for his cancer treatment. But it also resonates because life goes on whether you’re Victor, Louis, Frank or John.

The Honor Flight enabled them all to step back in time and reflect on the importance of the contributions they made.

It’s also a “pause button” in our daily routine that enables us to salute their sacrifice and commitment and realize the world wouldn’t be the same without them. The next flight, Yankee Flight, is March 28, 2020 followed by Zulu Flight on June 6, the anniversary of D-Day.

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Mark

Nice.

Saturday, September 21