WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) — Robert E.P. Elmer III was thrilled to hop aboard Honor Flight Hope earlier this month.
When tasked with deciding who he wanted to bring with him as his guardian, the Vietnam War veteran instantly had someone in mind.
That someone was 12 News anchor Mike Montecalvo, who’s been a close friend for nearly four decades. Montecalvo is also no stranger to Honor Flights. He’s already been to the nation’s capital three times to share the stories of veterans from Rhode Island.
Elmer and Montecalvo were among 90 veterans and their guardians to receive a warm welcome at T.F. Green International Airport ahead of their flight to Washington, D.C.
“It’s such a special day,” Elmer said. “When I came back from Vietnam in 1971, it wasn’t fun to be a Vietnam veteran.”
Dozens of Rhode Islanders lined the terminal holding signs, cheering and thanking the veterans for their service.
It was an experience that Elmer described as being “overwhelming,” but not in a bad way. He remembered what it was like to return home from Vietnam.
“We [received] nothing like this,” he said, referring to the sea of supporters wishing them well. “We were told to get out of our uniforms.”
Elmer’s family military history dates back to the War of 1812, with his grandfather serving in World War I and his father in World War II.
The three Elmer men all served in the U.S. Navy.
“I’ve always believed that, if you’ve worn the uniform, you [share] a bond,” Elmer said. “Unless you’ve worn the uniform, you’ll never understand it.”
“If you’ve worn the uniform, you’re part of something pretty special,” he added. “This really gives you a true sense of that.”
The veterans were lavished with love again upon touching down in Baltimore. Elmer was moved by the display of gratitude.
“One of the things I’m sensing is a very sincere sense of appreciation,” Elmer said. “It’s very emotional. It’s something we didn’t get 52 years ago when we came back.”
“There was nobody applauding for us,” he recalled. “When I came back and was in San Francisco, I was told not to go [anywhere] in my uniform because a half-dozen guys would jump me. I couldn’t wrap my head around that.”
Honor Flight Hope’s first stop was the World War II Memorial for an emotional ceremony. The Vietnam War Memorial was next.
Elmer said seeing the memorial in person really hit close to home.
“There were an awful lot of us,” he said. “How did I get so lucky and they didn’t?”
Elmer spent a few minutes searching for the name of a late high school friend who served in the U.S. Army.
“Frank Litchfield … Frank and I went to high school together and he is one guy from the hometown that I know is on this wall,” he said.
Elmer briefly fell silent upon finding his friend’s name.
“You see these names and it makes the whole thing become very real,” Elmer said. “This is the guy I walked down the halls of my high school with.”
“They all deserve remembering and our respect, our appreciation and our gratitude,” he continued.
Honor Flight Hope stopped at Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier before a special mail call.
Elmer always looked forward to receiving letters while overseas. When his name was called and he was handed a plastic bag full of letters, he was stunned.
“This is wonderful,” he said to himself as he opened the letters.
He teared up while reading letters from his loved ones, including his wife, daughters and grandchildren.
“That’s not fair,” he said with a chuckle while wiping away a tear.
It was a memorable 24-hour trip for Elmer and the other veterans, who returned home to another enthusiastic crowd of supporters.
“This was one of the most remarkable days of life,” he said. “It was spectacular.”
Anyone interested in participating in a future Honor Flight can learn more about the experience and fill out an application online.