WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) — It was a journey to remember for 44 female veterans as they traveled to Washington D.C. on a historic flight for a special tribute.
The women were given a hero's welcome when they arrived at T.F. Green International Airport in early April. Dozens of people lined the terminal holding signs, cheering and thanking the veterans for their service.
Eyewitness News was there as the women boarded Honor Flight Victory, the state's first all-female Honor Flight. The journey was organized by the Rhode Island Fire Chiefs Honor Flight, which offers no-cost trips to veterans who would like to visit the war memorials in Washington D.C.
When the group arrived in the nation's capital, the first person to greet them as they got off the plane was Lt. General Nadja West, the 44th United States Army Surgeon General.
"If it weren't for these women, I would not be here today," West told Eyewitness News. "They broke barriers, did jobs that weren't traditional at the time, they did them."
Waiting for the women at their first stop, the World War II Memorial, was retired Senator and dedicated war hero Bob Dole. Dole said it's great to see so many female veterans from Rhode Island in Washington D.C.
Sharon Lee Zapor, a Vietnam veteran, teared up when the group visited their second stop, the Korean and Vietnam War Memorials. She said she comes from a military family and the Korean War Memorial means a lot to her.
"My brother was 20 years old," she said. "He was missing three years in action before they found his remains. Every knock on the door, every drive in the driveway, my parents jumped. When they did get word, it was a telegram saying, 'Please advise us on what you want done with his remains.' Nobody came to the door. It was the first time I saw my mom and dad cry."
Ginny Hanson, who served in the Vietnam War, said seeing the names on the wall of the memorial is a solemn reminder of all of the lives lost.
"Half of my high school class was drafted or joined the service," Hanson said. "They all died, so we don't hold a high school reunion out of respect for them. I come to Washington several times a year and the people that are here, just hanging on to their names. Being able to touch the names is like touching them."
Retired Marine Nancy Pirnie commended the group for their service and said women played an important role in keeping the country safe.
"What an honor to be among all these wonderful women," she said. "If it weren't for the women that stepped up back in the '40s, we wouldn't be the country that we are and we wouldn't be the military that we are."
Pirnie brought roses to the memorial to remember six local Marines who made the ultimate sacrifice since 2000, as well as the man who inspired her to serve.
"They all have white roses and there's one red rose for my dad, who was a Marine, and the first Marine I ever loved," Pirnie said. "I'm grateful that I get to honor these marines that sacrificed so much."
The group then visited Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to remember the soldiers who did not return home.
The two oldest Honor Flight veterans, Rosie Desrosiers, who served in the Coast Guard, and Madeline Gray, who served in the Army in World War II, placed a wreath to honor the fallen.
During the trip, Gray wore the shirt she wore on the final day of her enlistment.
"I wanted to be the first woman general," she said.
After a long, memorable day, the women returned to T.F. Green, where more than 200 people welcomed them home.
Any World War II, Korean War or Vietnam War veteran can take part in an Honor Flight. Anyone interested in participating can contact the Rhode Island Fire Chiefs Honor Flight Hub for an application, visit their website or call (401) 354-7905.
Photo gallery of Honor Flight Victory: