You might have thought a forecast of rain and snow would be reason to cancel a trip to the nation’s capital where the average age of the participants is in the mid-80s.
But then what’s the threat of bad weather to World War II and Korean War veterans who have endured so much more?
Retired Providence Fire Chief George Farrell, founder of the Rhode Island Honor Flight, understands that perfectly. While he kept an eye on the forecast and how it could affect Saturday’s honor flight, he realized that was secondary to concerns when he stepped on one of two buses to bring the veterans and their guardians from the fire station next to Ann & Hope to Green Airport at 5 in the morning.
Once at the terminal, the 25 veterans – 12 World War II, 12 Korean War and one Vietnam War veteran – would be greeted by police and fire honor guards, friends, family, scouts and the bagpipe and drum corps in their kilts and boots.
With veterans and their guardians seated, Farrell addressed the group after finding the home for a purple umbrella and a jacket that had been left behind in the fire station.
“Once we get to the airport and you clear security, we’ll be having coffee,” he said. The word coffee had a galvanizing impact. Everybody looked happy. They were ready for this trip no matter what Mother Nature might deliver.
Then Farrell came up with the punch line.
“And we’ll find the bathrooms.” In place of cheers there were knowing smiles.
Planning for every contingency is a trademark of the Rhode Island Honor Flight that has earned them the distinction of being among the top ranked honor flights in the country. Honor flights are operated in 47 states. The intent of the program is to shine a spotlight on the veterans and what they have done for the country and to have them visit the nation’s war memorials.
But Korean War veteran and former Warwick School Superintendent Clyde Bennett found there is so much more to the experience.
The reception at Green Airport Saturday morning was just the beginning. He said he and other veterans were applauded wherever they went. He said people were thanking him for his service and cheering them on as they found their way through Reagan Airport outside Washington. On returning to Warwick Saturday night friends and family, plus fire and police, were there to welcome him.
It’s the personal touches that the Honor Flight put into the day that make it special, too.
Without his knowledge, Bennett’s grandson, Gerry Palumbo, arranged to meet the group as they arrived at the Korean War memorial. Before leaving for the flight to Rhode Island a dinner is held in an area hotel where each of the participating veterans is individually recognized during mail call. Each is handed a packet of letters and photos written by friends and family and in some cases students in schools today that they attended as children.
Bennett said he poked through the packet and realized he would become overcome. He waited to read them when he got home.
“It was one of the more emotional parts of the whole thing for me. Twenty, thirty letters from kids, grandkids and great-grandkids…I wasn’t going to put on a show blubbering. I put them aside,” he said.
Bennett was impressed by the organization and thought that went into the flight. He feels they are as much an impact on families as they are on the veterans as they affirm the important role a family member played in our nation’s history.
Saturday’s Honor Flight was sponsored by National Grid. It was the 17th flight run by the Rhode Island Association of Fire Chiefs. The IBEW has sponsored six or seven flights. Local 2323 is sponsoring the next flight on June 2. A third flight is planned for this year on Sept. 15.