Honor Flight keeps thanking WWII, Korean War vets

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Retired Providence Fire Chief George Farrell, founder of the Rhode Island Fire Chiefs Honor Flight Hub, showed no signs of slowing down Saturday morning.

It was 4:48 a.m. and rows of World War II and Korean War veterans, wearing red t-shirts made especially for the occasion, sat on metal chairs in the bay of Warwick Station 8 next to the Ann & Hope parking lot. Farrell didn’t have time for chitchat. He and his team, many who have been with him since the hub launched its first flight in 2012, were delivering the caring and attention to detail that has earned the Rhode Island hub the “Leading by Example Award in 2017” from the Honor Flight Network.

Saturday was the hub’s 17th Honor Flight, bringing 26 World War II and Korean War veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit war memorials and Arlington National Cemetery, followed by a dinner where the veterans are individually recognized before returning to Rhode Island. Senator Jack Reed met the Honor Fight and talked with veterans at the World War II memorial.

Veterans take the flight at no cost. Since 2012, the hub has transported almost 500 veterans to the nation’s capital. Each veteran is accompanied by a guardian. After assembling at the fire station – they were all there before 5 a.m. – they boarded RIPTA buses and were escorted by Warwick Police to Green Airport.

Some veterans, like former World War II Marine Arthur Lowe, who went on to become the Warwick Fire marshal, were as determined to make the flight as Farrell and his team. Only a few days before Lowe fell, badly hurting his arm and cutting his face.

His son, Arthur Jr., who served as his father’s guardian, said his father insisted on taking the trip. He was there in bandages.

As the veterans entered the terminal, they were saluted by fire, police and military honor guards as well as flag waving Boy Scouts, family and friends. Passengers waiting for flights applauded and the terminal came alive with a medley of service tunes played by the Rhode Island Professional Firefighters Pipes and Drums.

Farrell and his crew were a step ahead all the way. They had some help from Navy Commander Jason Grower, formerly stationed in the Washington area who drove down from Maine – leaving at 1 a.m. Saturday – to assist. Grower has greeted honor flights from across the country and calls the Rhode Island hub the best.

At the terminal Grower rushed wheelchairs to the buses, as other volunteers lined up the veterans for their coordinated entrance to the terminal. Once inside they make sure no one slipped getting on or off the escalator and as escorts to security.

After clearing security, the pipes and drums band led the veterans and their guardians to the gate, where they were treated to coffee and donuts before boarding their flight.

All the while, Farrell and his crew didn’t sit still. Their energy seemed boundless. That may be the case, but the funds are not limitless.

Numerous individuals, organizations and corporations have stepped up to help make flights possible. Saturday’s flight was largely sponsored by McShawn’s Pub. McShawn’s has raised significant funds, as has Ocean State Job Lot. These efforts, with a combination of corporate and customer contributions, have underwritten entire flights, which can cost $35,000.

Among the initial supporters were Locals 42 and 104 of the Brotherhood of Electrical Workers that contributed $10,000 and came forward with at least an additional $40,000. Among other flight sponsors are Centreville Bank, the Cranston Firefighters Union, Lepre Physical Therapy, South Kingstown Elks Lodge 1899 and the Major Kenneth B. Goff VFW Post that sponsored a flight when it disbanded.

As a major fundraiser and means of recognizing veterans and the sponsors, the Honor Flight will sponsor A Veterans Day of Honor on Nov. 12 at Twin River in Lincoln. All the veterans who participated in flights are being invited as guests to the event starting at noon and running until 4 p.m. at no cost. Tickets are $75 and include a plated dinner. There will be both a live and silent auction.

Farrell sees the event as giving veterans the opportunity to meet one another while building the resources to carry on the effort of to thank World War II and Korean War veterans before they are gone.

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