WASHINGTON, D.C. (WPRI) — It was an early morning for a group of Rhode Island veterans as they began their heroic journey to Washington D.C. earlier this September.

The group of World War II, Vietnam War and Korean War veterans began their journey on Sept. 15, departing from the Warwick Fire Station #8 on Post Road. They were escorted by law enforcement to T.F. Green International Airport, where a hero’s welcome awaited them.

Eyewitness News was there as the group boarded Honor Flight Tango, which is dedicated to honoring veterans for their sacrifices. The flight offers no-cost trips to veterans to visit the war memorials in Washington D.C.

While the group boarded the plane, hundreds of strangers and passers-by took time to greet, thank and applaud the men and women as they began their journey.

Before takeoff, a water cannon salute from the airport’s fire apparatus waited on the runway. From there it was off to Baltimore where, once again, total strangers took the time to thank the veterans for their service.

Upon arriving in Washington D.C., the veterans’ first stop was the World War II Memorial.

Retired Providence Fire Chief George Farrell is the chairman of the Rhode Island Fire Chiefs’ Honor Flight and said these trips are always special for veterans.

“This is really the first time they’ve gotten the opportunity for someone to say, ‘Thank you for what you did’ and to bring them here to see these beautiful memorials built to honor their sacrifice and service,” Farrell explained.

Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed also attended the ceremony. Reed said he felt it was important for the group of veterans to see the memorial.

“…To know that their sacrifice and is remembered by the nation forever,” Reed said.

When asked what it meant to see the names of fallen soldiers on the walls of the memorial, Elphege Plante, a U.S. Navy veteran from World War II, said he wished they were still alive.

“I wish they were here… but they’re not,” Plante explained. “My brother landed in Normandy, and he ended up at the Battle of the Bulge. And he’s gone too. There’s not many of us left.”

For Anthony Palazzo, a U.S. Army World War II veteran, the memorial brought difficult memories.

“I would say I lost quite a few friends in the war,” Palazzo said. “I lost a few in my squad. One airplane was straight ahead of us. His bomb did not drop when he opened the gates.”

“You think about what we’ve gone through, how many people we’ve lost,” Lawrence Drake, a U.S. Army veteran from the Korean War, explained. “It’s unbelievable until you come here to see it.”

Roger Messier, a U.S. Army veteran from the Korean War, took note of an engraving on the wall of one memorial that reads, “Freedom is not free.”

“There’s pain,” Messier said as he looked at the engraving. “…Suffering. People with hurts, not only physical, but mental hurts. It’s something you’d just like to forget about.” 

“I know I had to do what I had to do,” Norman Parent, a U.S. Army veteran from World War II, added. “We were glad when the war was over to come back home.”

Next on the Honor Flight Tango was a solemn visit to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The veterans were present for the changing of the guard and two members, Palazzo and U.S. Navy World War II veteran Dorabelle Smith, of the Honor Flight placed a wreath to remember those who lost their lives.

“It made me think about my older brother that fought in Korea, and a couple of uncles in World War II,” Ronald Petrie, Sr., a Vietnam War veteran, said. “One of them came home and the other got killed.”

Smith, who was an aircraft mechanic at Quonset during World War II, said she was honored to be chosen to place the wreath.

“There were too many thoughts going through my head at one time,” Smith said. “It was a different life, it was a good life, I was never sorry I went in.”

Smith initially planned to enlist with a friend, but that friend ended up backing out at the last minute. At 21 years old, Smith decided she was going in anyway.

“I wasn’t a pilot, but boy, I flew in all of those planes,” Smith recalled when talking about the hangar she worked in. “When you’re young, you take chances.”

When asked what went through his mind as he identified victims as an 18-year-old during the Korean War, Messier replied with tears.

“You know this man belongs to someone. His parents, wife, children… You think about that and say, ‘Oh my God,'” Messier explained.

The Honor Flight concluded with a return to T.F. Green Airport, and a final hero’s welcome, this time from a group of family and friends.

“It was fantastic,” Messier said. “The whole trip, especially the people at the airport, it’s just so moving.”

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.