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Honor Flight is always a story

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Honor Flights have become so frequent that they no longer make the news.

That was the case Saturday for Honor Flight Uniform, the 17th flight conducted by the Rhode Island Fire Chiefs Association to the Nation’s Capital. The TV news crews weren’t to be seen. There weren’t any news photographers and if there were reporters, I surely didn’t recognize them.

But then timing may have something to do with covering the remarkable things retired Providence Fire Chief George Farrell and his faithful volunteers have managed to accomplish. World War II, Korean and terminally ill Vietnam veterans and their guardians leave Station 8 next to Ann & Hope for a police escort to Green Airport at 5 a.m. That’s early even for Warwick residents who face a short drive to the fire station. Imagine what it means for Farrell’s crew, guardians and veterans traveling here from corners of the state and even out of state.

They’re not the only ones who had to set their morning alarms.

Many more are at the terminal to greet the veterans. There are family members, fire and police color guards, members of the military, scouts and the RI Professional Firefighters Pipes and Drums, who dressed in their kilts provide the pageantry as the veterans arrive and then after they have cleared security lead the way to the Southwest gate. For corps members it was a quick turnaround from Friday night and their annual event that ended sometime around 11 p.m.

But lack of sleep really isn’t a factor when it comes to an event where spirits run high and pride in our veterans is even higher. The story, and it’s always different I’ve learned, is not in the total number of veterans on each trip or the quantity of people and dollars needed to make it happen. Rather, it’s in the experiences and motivation of participants.

I found out, for example, that two golf tournaments played a big role in Saturday’s flight.

Jerry Newsham, secretary/treasurer of the 45-member Retired Deputy Sheriffs Association, filled me in. Newsham runs a successful annual golf tournament with the proceeds going to an organization or event supported by the group. Last year’s tournament raised about $6,000 that the association decided should go to the honor flight.

Farrell said he was delighted to get the support. When Newsham asked what it would take to be a flight sponsor, Farrell said it would take about $15,000 to send the veterans to Washington for the day. Newsham asked that the $6,000 be held and with this year’s tournament he raised the balance of funds to sponsor a flight.

That was part of it. There were personal reasons, too. Newsham’s late father, Louis V. Newsham, was 18 when he fought in the Battle of the Bulge, where he was twice wounded. This honor flight would be in his memory and of his wife Linda’s late father, John Casale, who also was a WWII veteran. Linda was on Saturday’s flight and, at the last moment when a guardian failed to show up, readily agreed to fill that role. Newsham’s sisters, Eileen and Judy were also on the flight as guardians.

Veterans’ stories are always compelling. There are those of courage in the line of fire or those like that of Army veteran Sanford Tanner who came ashore on Omaha Beach soon after D-Day and, as the Beacon reported this summer, was responsible for taking the photos of the liberation of one of the concentration camps that had been attributed to another member in his unit also from Rhode Island. When Tanner visited the Beacon to straighten out the misrepresentation, I inquired whether he’d been on an honor flight. He said he wasn’t interested. Obviously, that all changed because he was there Saturday with his son serving as his guardian…and he was smiling with delight.

Gilchrist Garvey’s claim to fame came about 70 years after WWII when he parachuted from a small plane over North Smithfield at the age of 90. Garvey was a paratrooper, but he didn’t get to see service until 1946 when the war was drawing to a close. He said nobody was shooting at him when he jumped back then and, in fact, it was much easier as he was younger and the plane was larger.

So why jump when you’re 90?

Garvey said when President Bush made the news by jumping at the age of 90, he threatened to do the same when he reached the age. Apparently, his daughter reminded him of his comment and he didn’t renege on his birthday pledge. It made the news big time.

Not all accounts are so headline grabbing and that, as I see it, is really the story of the Honor Flights. A few saw action and played roles in the battles – whether they were in WWII, Korea or Vietnam – that serve to define those wars. Many more were in support positions, sometimes far from harm’s way. Their contributions to the war efforts are in no way considered any less valuable by the Honor Flight. All veterans are equally celebrated for the service and as I was reminded Saturday not only do they each have a story, but so too do those who are committed to honoring them.

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