Saturday’s Honor Flight was Victory Flight, the 22nd since retired Providence Fire Department Chief George Farrell and the Rhode Island Fire Chiefs Association initiated the program locally to fly World War II and Korean War veterans to Washington, D.C., for a day of visiting war memorials and to witness the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Farrell and his crew of dedicated volunteers have Honor Flights covered. They’ve thought of everything, from a medic to accompany the group to doing research on each of the veterans so when they hold mail call there are memories and sentiments that bring laughter and tears to many. Every minute is planned.
But Saturday’s flight was the first of its kind for Rhode Island. All 26 veterans and their guardians were women.
Farrell was in for a few surprises.
Within the first 15 minutes of gathering at 4:45 a.m. at Fire Station 8 next to Ann & Hope in Warwick, Farrell learned the women veterans were far more outgoing than their male counterparts. There was a buzz in the firehouse, and only after waving his arms and raising his voice was Farrell able to outline how they would board buses to be escorted by police, firefighters and motorcyclists to the T.F. Green Airport terminal.
Farrell also discovered a lot of important people wanted to meet the women in Washington, including former U.S. Sen. Robert Dole and his wife, Elizabeth; U.S. Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. General Nadja West; Lt. Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, director of staff at U.S. Air Force Headquarters at the Pentagon; U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire; and Rhode Island’s own senior U.S. senator, Jack Reed.
Between veterans and their guardians, the women represented all branches of the military service. They had served during World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam War, Desert Storm, Iraqi Freedom and other military operations since then.
Until recently, Farrell reasoned, many women veterans felt uncomfortable signing up for an Honor Flight because they had not been in combat or were serving stateside, far from the action. That changed when the General Federation of Women’s Clubs made it a cause to sponsor an all-women veterans’ flight.
Not only did the club – with the help of Beauty Lounge at Magnolia in Cranston – raise about $15,000 to help underwrite the cost of the flight, it also actively recruited veterans to participate. The New England Patriots also stepped up with swag bags for the veterans and their guardians and special jerseys for two women celebrating their birthdays. The team also paid for 75 dinners before the group returned to Green on Saturday night.
Saturday’s Honor Flight was conducted in memory of Marine Lance Cpl. Holly Charette of Cranston, who was 21 years old when she was killed on June 23, 2005, when a vehicle-borne improvised explosive detonated near her convoy vehicle in Fallujah, Iraq. T-shirts worn by the veterans and their guardians had patches with a photograph of Holly.
“They’re bringing her with them, their guiding light,” said Holly’s mother, Regina Roberts, who with her husband, Ed, was at the airport to see the Honor Flight depart.
Farrell offered no guess as to how many more flights he and his band of devoted volunteers will run. Flights are planned for June 1 and September of this year.
“I love it when you get to the day and you see all the faces,” he said.
Saturday’s flight brought hundreds of visitors to the airport to cheer the veterans and their guardians on as they arrived at the terminal not long after 5 a.m.
The Rhode Island Professional Firefighters Pipes & Drums and members of the Providence Police Pipes & Drums – playing anthems from branches of the military – welcomed the group, along with police and fire department color guards, Scouts and family members.
On Monday, Gloria Vignone of Johnston, an Army nurse who was stationed in the intermediate care ward at the Mosul hospital in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom, said she was unprepared for the cheering crowds who greeted the flight participants at Green Airport and throughout the day.
“It made my hair stand up. I didn’t expect it,” she said.
Then, during mail call held at dinner before the flight back to Rhode Island, Vignone opened letters from her family.
“It brought me to tears,” she said.
During Vignone’s time in Mosul, the hospital came under repeated mortar attack and the unit that was caring for 20 to 30 injured American and Iraqi soldiers had to be relocated. She said what was especially stressful was when the hospital had to respond to mass casualty incidents, which happened seven or eight times during her tour. Resources were stretched and choices had to be made as to who was treated first.
For Vignone, the Honor Flight brought back feelings from 2007 when she returned from her tour of duty.
“It made me feel so good,” she said.
Farrell said the crowds where among the biggest and most vocal he has experienced since spearheading the Rhode Island Honor Flight program. And in a first, he said, three busloads of U.S. Coast Guard Academy cadets arrived as the group arrived for dinner to pay tribute to 96-year old Rosetta Desrosiers, a Coast Guard veteran from Warwick and one of four women veterans of World War II on the fight.
They surrounded her to sing, and as Farrell reported, she was delighted.
That’s why Farrell keeps planning another flight.