Saying ‘thank you’ to our veterans

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The Memorial Day weekend is a time of year when we focus attention on veterans and the sacrifices they have made to ensure our freedoms. The tradition of recognizing deceased veterans dates back to the days following the Civil War when communities rallied to place flowers on the graves of veterans. First called Declaration Day, it wasn’t until 1971 when the Uniform Monday Holiday Act established the last Monday in May as Memorial Day.

Locally, parades and displays recognize those who have served and are no longer with us. Filling the ranks of a parade with those who served, whether in active duty or otherwise, can be difficult. Tony Rodrigues, organizer of the Warwick Veterans Council parade, has found it increasingly difficult to recruit veterans to march. Organizations, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion that traditionally turned out in numbers, have seen their members dwindle. Their ranks have not been replenished with Vietnam War and veterans of the conflicts to follow.

We have not forgotten those who have died in service. The Boots on the Ground for Heroes Memorial organized by Operation Stand Down honored the 6,857 Americans who have lost their lives in the fight against terrorism since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The memorial at the Temple of Music at Roger Williams Park this past weekend was a compelling reminder of the price these men and women have paid for this country. In a solemn and more personally meaningful way, as it is the final resting place for so many family and friends, was the Avenue of Flags at the Pawtuxet Memorial Cemetery. Flags lined cemetery roads with the names of veterans buried there written in their inner bindings.

Memorial Day is an occasion to remember those who served and are no longer with us. What can we do, what can we say in appreciation to our living veterans other than “thank you for your service?”

This Saturday, 50 World War II and Korean veterans will participate in the 15th Honor Flight organized by the Rhode Island Association of Fire Chiefs Foundation. The Rhode Island Honor Flight is one of 131 hubs in 45 states that have collectively brought 180,261 veterans to visiting our national memorials in Washington since starting.

Retired Providence Fire Chief George Farrell is the driving force of Rhode Island Honor Flight, making the experience a truly meaningful tribute to these veterans. The daylong flight that starts at 5 a.m. with a rendezvous at the fire station next to Ann & Hope in Warwick is followed by a police and fire escort to Green Airport, where firefighters, police and members of the military at attention with rows of Boy Scouts, friends and those in the airport welcome the veterans as they are ushered into the terminal by marching bagpipers. Veterans are given a similar reception on their arrival with rippling applause and words of gratitude from people as they visit Arlington National Cemetery and national monuments.

In 2016 the Honor Flight network brought 20,558 veterans to Washington. Of that number, 6,727 were World War II veterans, 8,453 Korean War veterans and 5,119 Vietnam War veterans. The balance of 259 was veterans of other conflicts.

Veterans who have taken an honor flight say they have never experienced anything like it. Not only are they humbled by the outpouring of appreciation, but find more meaning to their personal service so many years ago.

As we pause to reflect on what veterans mean to us, it is also a time to thank our veterans. Consider being at the Sundlun Terminal at Green Airport Saturday morning and applauding as the latest batch of 50 veterans, each accompanied by a guardian, leave for Washington. Best to be there by 5:15. Or, welcome them home that night on Southwest Flight 4995 scheduled to arrive at 11:05.

It’s an early start and a late night, but consider what they have been through.

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