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Honor Flight does right by our veterans

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“Smile.”

The trio outside the Southwest boarding gate pulled tighter together and gave a smile; only Anthony Palazzo’s was more of a grin.

“Smile,” I said a second time waiting for the split second when Palazzo wasn’t quite so self-conscious. Often when taking pictures of people, the challenge is to get them looking natural, rather than putting on a forced expression that is anything but sincere.

I hadn’t expected that from Palazzo, not from someone who is 99 years old and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Palazzo, who lives in Wethersfield Commons, was drafted in 1943 and landed on Omaha Beach 10 days after D-Day. He served with the anti-aircraft artillery and saw two of his buddies killed when a bomb detonated on their side of the half-track (an armored vehicle) he had been riding in.

“I was lucky,” Palazzo said of his World War II experience. Now he was smiling. So was his nephew, retired Warwick fire captain Joseph Papa and his daughter Susan Robin.

Palazzo was one of 24 veterans – 13 World War II vets, nine from the Korean War and three from Vietnam – on Rhode Island Honor Flight Tango, the 20th honor flight held Saturday by the Rhode Island Association of Fire Chiefs. The veterans, each accompanied by a guardian, spent the day in Washington D.C. visiting war memorials and watching the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier before having dinner and returning to Rhode Island.

That’s just an outline of the sequence of events but, having gone on a flight in June of 2017, it is so much more. Retired Providence Fire Chief George Farrell and his team of devoted volunteers ensure each flight pays proper tribute to those who have served this country. Each of the participants received a Tango (the 20th letter in the alphabet) T-shirt, identification tags and in the case of the vets, a hat signifying the war they served in. Each of the vets is also individually recognized during mail call that is held during dinner. The “mail” itself is masterful, reflecting the work of volunteers to collect pictures and letters from family members. It’s by no means restricted to family correspondence. There are letters from elementary school students – total strangers – with the connection being they share the school the vet attended.

It’s a detail in a fabric of events that make each honor flight unique.

When I arrived at Station 8 next to Ann & Hope at 4:45 a.m. Saturday, a ladder with the American flag hanging from its end was suspended across the roadway as it had been for previous flights. And then there was something I hadn’t heard before – the rumble of Harley Davidson motorcycles. Warwick Police usually escort buses carrying the veterans and their guardians from the fire station to the terminal where they are wheeled between applauding officials, ranks of police, fire and military, scouts, family and spectators. Adding to the spectacle was the Rhode Island Professional Firefighters Pipes and Drums that played the theme songs of the various branches of the military.

This time scores of motorcycles were lined up, waiting to escort the vets. It was the IBEW Riding Club from Local 99 and Local 2323. The two locals that have been faithful supporters of Honor Flight were sponsors of Flight Tango. Riding club president Ray Cimino said the membership wanted to be a part of the event and Farrell quickly agreed. Some members living in Connecticut and Massachusetts were on the road by 3 a.m. in order to make it.

“So what time where you up?” I asked.

“He just left the bar and came straight here,” joked a club member. Everyone laughed.

The flights have evolved with the behind the scenes mechanics changing as groups join in this effort to thank our veterans. Dave Sayles, who has been involved from the beginning, leaves the planning to Farrell and has focused on the sponsorships and contributions. There was a time when Honor Flight depended on the loan of wheelchairs from hospitals, nursing homes and other places, which meant first gathering the chairs and then cleaning and returning them all. Soon after some WWII residents of Brookdale West Bay assisted living joined in a flight, West Bay staff mounted a campaign to buy wheelchairs. That helped. Then, said Sayles, a donor came forward and bought all the chairs.

Honor flight board member Wayne Moore is one of the steadfast supporters. He arranges and provides the spread of Dunkin Donuts coffee, muffins and donuts that awaits vets and their guardians when they arrive at the Southwest gate and await departure. He was on Saturday’s flight.

It’s been like that. A diehard group committed to paying recognition to our veterans joined by growing ranks of volunteers and companies. The Honor Flights keep coming and remarkably there are always WWII veterans. Out of the 24 veterans on Saturday’s flight, 13 were WWII, nine Korean and two Vietnam. The next flight is Oct. 24. Flights in 2019 are planned for April 6, June 1 and September 14.

After the war, Palazzo returned to his job at the Outlet Company where he worked for more than 30 years before taking a state job.

He was in awe of the reception veterans received on arriving at Green. That would just be the beginning. I knew he would find a similar outpouring of appreciation when the flight landed at Baltimore and as the group visited Washington war memorials. It is a thank you that many veterans never received on coming home. From talking to vets who have been on the Honor Flight, it’s an experience that brings definition and meaning to a time in their lives and their role in history. They all say it is a day they will never forget.

As the oldest veterans on Tango Flight Palazzo and Dorabelle Smith, 96, who served in the Navy and was an aircraft mechanic at Quonset during WWII had the distinction of laying the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery. Farrell said he always requests for the privilege, but that this was only the fourth time the Rhode Island Honor Flight has had the honor.

I imagine Palazzo performed the job flawlessly. He refused a wheelchair on entering the airport terminal, insisting on walking.

With that same pride and an attitude of not wanting to burden others shared by so many WWII Vets, I’m sure he made us proud.

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Josephine

What a special tribute to our dear Veterans.

Tuesday, September 18