A veteran at honoring vets

Posted 11/8/22

A chance encounter at the Baltimore/Washington Airport as George Farrell and his family were on their way home from a spring vacation in 2010 changed his live and the lives of about 800 …

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A veteran at honoring vets


A chance encounter at the Baltimore/Washington Airport as George Farrell and his family were on their way home from a spring vacation in 2010 changed his live and the lives of about 800 veterans.

Farrell was at the right time and the right place to witness an Honor Flight pass through the terminal. Those in the terminal paused on their way to make connections to applaud a group of World War II veterans, some in wheelchairs, others walking, wearing jackets and hats distinguishing the branch of the service in which they served. Travelers passing through the terminal were not the only ones recognizing the veterans. Local police and firefighters, units representing different branches of the military, scout troops and civic groups and family and friends were there to greet them on. Some stood ramrod straight, saluting. Others waved flags, applauding and cheering.

At first Farrell didn’t know what was happening, but he could see the joy in the faces of the veterans and the sincerity of those applauding them. It was genuine and when he learned more, not only did he want local WWII veterans to have the opportunity to visit the war memorials in the nation’s capital, but he believed the Rhode Island Retired Fire Chiefs could pull it off.

Last Thursday marked the tenth anniversary of the first Honor Flight run by the Rhode Island Fire Chiefs Association. Since then Farrell and his followers — most of them having been with him from the start — having organized and run 27 flights.

The flights are packed days. Veterans, many in their 80s and 90s and usually one or two 100 year-olds or older, are up by 4 a.m. to rendezvous for a bus to get them to Rhode Island T.F. Green International Airport by 5:30 where they are given a boisterous sendoff by bagpipers and drummers and hundreds of people. They don’t get back until 11 p.m., if not later, after a full day in Washington, arriving to another cheering crowd, albeit smaller.

“It’s amazing what that one day does,” says Farrell. He makes a point of telling veterans and those who serve as guardians, “It’s going to change your life.”

Farrell knows what he’s talking about. It has changed his life, but more importantly he has seen it change the lives of veterans and their guardians.

Honor Flights have become a passion for Farrell. He laughs relating how his family recruits veterans for the fights and he always has a supply of application forms. The flights are free for the veterans. Farrell’s goal is to get the vets safely to Washington and back, for them to see the war memorials and to be honored for the service they have rendered.

Thinking back to that inaugural Rhode Island flight, Farrell confesses, “I didn’t know what was going to happen.”

He knew one thing from having seen that flight two years earlier in Baltimore.

“It became my personal mission,” he said.

What he realized was that firefighters are “particularly well suited for this.” He explains that firefighters are trained to respond to critical situations whether it be a call to help someone who may be having a heart attack, an accident or a fire. Firefighters are on the watch for the safety and well being of others and don’t hesitate to step in when necessary.

There’s more to it than the individuals, Farrell points out. It’s the organization, the chain of command and procedures used by firefighters.

“Most of us have fire service command (experience),” he said.

Flight leaders have radios. Buses are named and rosters of those on each bus are checked. The medical needs of each veteran are established well before the flight leaves Rhode Island. (On the flight last month, three of the 42 veterans were on oxygen.) A medic accompanies every fight and wheelchairs are always available even though many veterans insist they don’t need them.

“I have confidence of having the best team in Honor Flight,” Farrell says without hesitance.

After being selected for a flight, veterans and their guardians gather for a meet and greet where they learn what will happen in the course of the day. Farrell personally makes a point to meeting each veteran. He assesses if they “feel comfortable” with what they’re going to do and gets to hear their stories.

“I want to make sure they can do this safely,” he said. He also wants to make sure the veterans feel confident they can make the trip.

“This is a big responsibility,” he said of the commitment made by the team. The personal attention is part of the experience for the veterans. While each veteran has a guardian to turn to for assistance, Farrell and the team make a point of connecting with every veteran throughout the day of touring the war memorials and watching the change of the guard at the tomb of the unknown soldier. The senior members of the Honor Flight usually participate in the placing of a wreath at the tomb as part of the ceremony.

Before boarding the return flight to Rhode Island, the group gathers at a hotel for dinner. It’s an occasion for newfound friends to gather and for the “mail call” that is a highlight of the day. The Honor Flight team goes to lengths to personalize the letters, photos and mementoes enclosed in the envelopes as the name of each veteran is called out. Reaching out to family members, friends and former employers they come up with photos from their service and letters of thanks for their service. Entire classes from elementary schools veterans once attended have sent thank you cards.

“There’s nothing like this immediate impact,” Farrell says of the day-long experience.

What he finds especially rewarding is seeing the emotion of World War II vets in their 90s and now in their 100s who had no expectation of ever visiting the memorials. For some time Honor Flight has included Korean and Vietnam War vets. They also have included vets who have terminal medical conditions.

Farrell, who recently turned 67, shows no sign of slowing down. The team is working on assembling the next flight. It takes scheduling flights, escorts, reserving the hotel, lining up the vets and the guardians and scores of details from designing and making T-shirts to gathering those letters and photos that personalize mail call. It also takes a lot of money too.

 A flight averages from $25,000 to $30,000 to cover the cost of the vets and the support team. Most guardians pay their own way. Fortunately, there are many generous supports.

Ocean State Job Lot Charities sponsored three flights. Wayne Moore, one of Farrell’s team, has personally sponsored flights and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union 104, Local 42 and Local 2323 have individually or collectively sponsored numerous flights. The list of sponsors or co-sponsors is extensive including  National Grid, Centreville Bank, Bob’s Red Mill, McShawn’s Pub, VFW Post 183, Lepre Physical Therapy and the Cranston Fire Fighters union to name but a few.

“I’m lucky,” Farrell said, “not everyone’s family is so generous with their time.”

His wife, Jane, served as a guardian on the first flight and their daughters have helped with the program since the start. His 94-year old mother was there to greet the most recent flight. Friends have also pitched in. Just this fall a friend who received $5,000 handed the check over to Farrell. Farrell was stunned. The donor explained he could think of no better use for his windfall.

Rhode Island is a certified National Honor Flight Hub, a distinction it earned for the manner in in which it conducts flights.

It’s a designation Farrell is proud of and one he believes deserving of the team.

For all his passion to recognize what veterans have done for this country, Farrell did not serve in the military. His father and father-in-law both served during World War II. His number was on the Vietnam draft list when he turned 18, but soon after the draft was dropped.

Now his reward comes from honoring those who did serve, and, most of all, showing appreciation for their sacrifice and what it means to a grateful nation

Farrell, flight


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