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November 2018

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Rhode Island Locals Sponsor Honor Flight Tango

War memorials in the United States are different than just about anywhere else in the world. Most countries mark victories in campaigns as a whole. Trafalgar Square in London celebrates a naval victory with a statue of an admiral. The Arc de Triomphe is ringed with the names of battles and generals.

Memorials in the United States tend to honor the soldier instead. The Korean War Veterans Memorial is a platoon of 19 men, dressed for rain, winter and combat. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is famously a list of names of the fallen, no ranks, all equal.

Because we focus our attention on the people, visiting the memorials can change lives, no matter how far along they are. They give veterans a chance to put their war in perspective and say goodbye to the dead, lost recently or long ago.

Six months before its annual solidarity motorcycle ride, the planning committee members of Providence, R.I., Local 99 and Cranston Local 2323 knew they wanted to use the money they raised to help veterans, but they weren't sure how, according to Local 99 President Joe Walsh.

The day after the first meeting, a representative from an electric supply wholesaler walked through the door with a pamphlet for the Honor Flight, a program that flies veterans, a volunteer guardian and medical staff to visit the war memorials and Arlington National cemetery,

"He wanted a donation. I read it and knew immediately we would do better than that. So I told him to come back next Wednesday night," Walsh said. It was an easy sell to the rest of the committee to sponsor the entire flight: $13,000.

Some were worried they wouldn't raise enough, Walsh said, but the idea was so popular and the ride attracted so many participants, they cleared more than $30,000. Half covered the honor flight, banquet and escorts; $12,000 went to a state wide veterans assistance nonprofit and another $4,000 for a veterans' suicide-prevention hotline.

A date was chosen for the end of summer. Logistics were handled by the Rhode Island Fire Chiefs association. Walsh, his wife Doreen, journeyman wireman Alvin Reyes, his daughter Jianna and a crew of volunteer guardians assembled at Fire Station 8 outside of Providence to meet the 23 veterans chosen for Rhode Island Honor Flight Tango — the 20th flight from the state. There were 13 veterans of World War II, nine from the Korean War and two from Vietnam.

They boarded a bus, some walking erect, some with canes, some in wheelchairs. Some backs were bent, some straight, but at no point in the day's journey were they ever alone.

From the firehouse to the bus they passed ranks of well-wishers, including the honor guard of the Local 99 and Local 2323 motorcycle clubs, who formed a protective cordon for the short ride to the airport.

At the airport, they were preceded by the Rhode Island Professional Firefighters Pipes and Drums Band and walked a tunnel of onlookers to the terminal.

When the veterans landed in Baltimore, they were again met at the terminal by dozens of grateful travelers — "throngs," Walsh said — and this time the motorcade was a cocoon of flashing lights from U.S. Park Police vehicles.

First, they visited the WWII memorial, then Vietnam, Korea, the Air Force Memorial on a hill above the Pentagon and then on to Arlington National Cemetery. Everywhere a path was cleared, their arrival applauded, their service honored.

It is, said Honor Flight Network CEO Meredith Rosenbeck, a welcome they all earned but may not have received when they first came home.

"You get recognition you did not get, especially the Vietnam vets. They get to go be celebrated. You arrive at the airport, there are people there to greet and welcome you. You fly home, there are crowds of people to welcome you home," she said. "You see monuments with other veterans. Talk about what war meant to you."

Since 2005, the network has flown more than 200,000 veterans and nearly as many guardians to the memorials. They get no special fares, and it isn't cheap. Every man and woman who has made the trip has come through the benevolence of others. Locals 99 and 2323 are far from the first to sponsor flights — the list that includes Boston Local 104; Reading, Pa., Local 743; Long Island, N.Y., Local 25; and Hartford, Conn., Local 42; among dozens of others.

For the WWII generation, time is running out. Of the more than 16 million who served, only about a half million are left. On this flight, Anthony Palazzo was the senior soldier. He is less than half a year from his 100th birthday. He was just 24 when he landed on Omaha Beach 10 days after D-Day. As an anti-aircraft artilleryman, he helped repel the Germans' final offensive campaign on the Western Front at the Battle of the Bulge in the snow-covered Ardennes forest.

Walsh served as guardian to Norman Gregory. He is 89 years old, an MP who served in Korea.

Doreen Walsh walked with Dorabelle Smith, age 96, a veteran of the U.S. Navy and an aircraft mechanic during the war.

At Arlington National Cemetery, Smith and Gregory, with the Walshes at their side, lay the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

"It was the most humbling experience of my life," Walsh said. "They are shaking my hand and thanking me for making this happen. We raised a little bit of money. 'You gave me freedom to speak, to say what I want. To worship in the church I wish and join a union. And you are thanking me? No.'"

Before flying back to Rhode Island, there was a dinner at the hotel. Walsh had a banner made, and each of the veterans signed their name. Walsh set it hanging from the rafters in the Local 99 hall the next day. Then, he swore in a new member, a young man who will hopefully be around for decades.

"I told him it was his job to make sure that banner never comes off the wall," Walsh said.

Members and local unions interested in getting involved can visit or call (937) 521-2400.


Twenty-three Veterans from WWII, the Korean and Vietnam Was were flown to visit war memorials and Arlington National Cemetery in a flight sponsored by Providence, R.I., Local 99 and Cranston, R.I., Local 2323.