WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) — After two years of uncertainty, dozens of local veterans embarked on the journey of a lifetime.
The Rhode Island Fire Chiefs Association was forced to put Honor Flights “Yankee” and “Zulu” on hold last year due to the pandemic.
But both groups, which are made up of 14 World War II, 24 Korean War and 22 Vietnam War veterans, finally got their chance to visit the nation’s capital earlier this month.
The veterans were greeted at Rhode Island T.F. Green Airport by a sea of supporters cheering for them as they made their way inside.
It was a similar situation when they landed at Reagan National Airport, but this time, nearly all of the people who greeted them were complete strangers.
Their first stop was Arlington National Ceremony, where the veterans took part in the Changing of the Guard.
The two oldest veterans on the Honor Flight, 101-year-old Peter Ricci and 91-year-old Robert Champlain, were selected to lay a wreath at the base of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier during the ceremony.
Ricci, who served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, was grateful for the opportunity.
“It was unreal, I’ll tell you,” he said. “I didn’t know what to think because my mind was going all kind of ways. It was outstanding, amazing. I would never believe I was given the honor to do this.”
Ricci said he left the United States on a minesweeper to go to Iwo Jima.
“We were sent onto a convoy to prepare for an invasion of Okinawa,” he recalled.
John Romano served in the U.S. Navy throughout World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. When asked how he ended up enlisting, Romano said, “It was just the way the ball bounced.”
“I signed up in 1942 and was called to active duty in ’43,” he said.
Memories of working at the Pentagon raced through Romano’s mind as the bus drove by.
“I was showing my son where the plane hit,” he said, referencing 9/11. “That was my office right where the plane hit.”
The trip to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was haunting for some, including 74-year-old Bob Bernard.
The Vietnam War veteran said seeing a visual representation of how many Americans either died or went missing hit hard.
“It could have been me and it wasn’t,” he said. “Lucky. A lot of guys were lucky, and a lot of guys weren’t.”
Seeing the wall in person was also difficult for Korean War veteran Earl Buckman.
“This wall bothers me really bad,” Buckman said. “I was never in [Vietnam], but I just feel sorry for these guys. They were good boys.”
Maurine Anne Dawe, 78, served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War.
“I brought my daughter here when she was 8 years old, and she just started crying immediately when she saw the names,” Dawe said. “I said to her, ‘Well Posha, maybe your mom kept some of those names off the wall.’ I was nurse in Vietnam.”
Vietnam veteran William Hancock, 79, said seeing the names on the walls was moving.
“When we came back, we were spit at, we were called names. We were not welcomed home,” he recalled.
But Hancock said this trip is a completely different story.
“I’m holding back tears right now,” he said. “It’s fantastic. Today was great.”
For some, including 88-year-old Korean War veteran Norman Pineault, serving the country is a family affair.
Norman brought his grandson Dennis Pineault with him on the trip.
“I still remember going to a coffee shop when I was 17 and talking about joining, and he convinced me,” Dennis recalled. “I’ve been in for the last 24 years and a lot of that is thanks to him.”
“I’m as proud as I can be,” Norman added.