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Veterans get heroes’ welcome in return on Honor Flight

Posted 11 November 2015 at 12:00 am

Photo courtesy of Mattie Zarpentine – Michelle Restivo and her grandfather, Richard Heard of Rochester, return to the Rochester airport on Oct. 25 after being on the Honor Flight to Washington, D.C.

(Editor’s Note: Richard Heard of Albion was on the Honor Flight last month, flying out of Rochester to Washington, D.C., so veterans and their families could see the memorials in the nation’s capital. Heard was joined by his granddaughter, Michelle Restivo of Albion. She has shared highlights from the trip with the Orleans Hub. This is the fourth and final installment. Heard enlisted during World War II and was a radar mechanic. In February of 1943, he was called to active service from reserve status. He was stationed in six states. Restivo works as a kindergarten teacher in Batavia.)

By Michelle Restivo

Our Honor Flight tour of Washington, D.C. was over. We’d visited all of the war memorials and much more.

Grandpa Dick had been thanked for his service by hundreds of people. The little snippets of his experience in the service during WWII that he shared with me are conversations that I will treasure forever.

Seeing and learning so much in such a short amount of time was more than I’d ever imagined. Back on the bus Saturday evening, we started our trek back to our hotel in Baltimore.

I was sure Grandpa would doze a little on the ride back; I’d guess he averages about 14 little naps on any given day at home. And up to this point in our journey, I hadn’t seen him close his eyes once! But to my surprise, it was ME who nodded off on the ride.

I would wake and glance over to check on him, and there he was – looking out the window, or around the bus, wide eyed as ever. I don’t think he wanted to miss a thing of this trip, and his adrenaline must have kept him going long after he felt tired.

Photos courtesy of Michelle Restivo – A big crowd gathered at the airport to greet the Veterans on the Honor Flight.

Since our delayed start earlier in the morning had put us far behind schedule, we didn’t have much time in our room before heading down to dinner. A quick freshen up, and we were off again.

Honor Flight Rochester kept our momentum going, we had heard about the delicious turkey dinner awaiting us in the ballroom. We made a quick stop to cash in our drink tickets at the bar. (The Veterans literally paid for nothing on this trip. And why would they – they have already paid so much in their time and sacrifice!)

Walking in, I could almost see these soldiers back in time. Dressed in uniform, gathering with their comrades at a local watering hole on a base or while deployed.

We found a table to join, and I enjoyed hearing the men swap stories of their time and place in the service. It’s really difficult for Grandpa to hear in situations like a dinner party, the background noise muffles all conversation. But, the men tried to include him in their conversations as much as possible.

During our trip, I quickly became adept at being Grandpa’s interpreter, as he called me. I made sure to sit on his “good side”. That way, I could lean in and relay what was being said to him so that he could reply. His voice is incredibly soft these days, so I would often have to repeat what he said to the others at the table. It was an interesting way to hold a conversation, that’s for sure.

After dinner, we retired to our room for the evening. It was pretty cool sharing a room with Grandpa. He is such an interesting guy and watching him putter around was very entertaining. He even shared some hilarious stories with me, about some of his shenanigans while he was in the service. Those are best kept out of print, we decided.

The next morning at breakfast, we heard stories of several Vets who closed down the bar the night before, what a great time they had! Our bus was second to leave the hotel for the airport, so we remained in the breakfast room chatting at a table with two other Vets and their guardians. They seemed to know each other, and since it was quiet with just us in the room, Grandpa was able to participate freely in the conversation.

They again traded stories of their time serving, and then of course the conversation turned to their life after service. Grandpa enjoyed talking with them about Albion; one of the men knew people there through his business. They talked a lot about the way town used to be, establishments that were there that I’d never heard of, people whose names I recognized but didn’t really know. It was fun little trip back in Albion’s history for me.

Our flight back to Rochester was uneventful, and right on time. Grandpa did catch some shut-eye this time; I think the previous day’s events were finally catching up to him. After landing, our trip leaders gave instructions for us to meet by the ramp heading toward security and we would enter the airport as a group. More than once, we heard the volunteers say, “The best is yet to come.”

How could anything top the experiences we’d just had? I knew that Honor Flight invited the public to welcome the group home, and that is special for sure. But I had no idea of what the organization really had planned.

Similar to our arrival into the Baltimore airport, there were people cheering for the Veterans as we exited the plane in Rochester. Waving flags and reaching out their hands. Still staying, “Thank you for your service, sir,” but this time adding, “Welcome home.”

We made our way through a line of distinguished individuals: a retired Army general, a Monroe County executive, a news anchor, an American Legion Post president, and the president of Rochester Honor Flight. Then, the president made an announcement to our group, and I finally realized just what was to come.

Lucille Bloom holds a picture of Richard Heard from when he visited the World War II Memorial in Washington on Oct. 24. She was among the greeters to see him when he returned.

“Ladies and gentleman, we can’t thank you enough for your service. We are so grateful for all that you sacrificed for our freedom. We know many of you returned home after your time in the service, to no fanfare, no thank yous, and that some of you, you returned home to protests of your service and opposition to you, the soldiers. Here is the homecoming you all deserved. Welcome home, and thank you for your service. Now, go enjoy your welcome home party.”

I could hear strains of a brass band playing and we all pushed forward into the airport. What was to come was a scene like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Hundreds of people lining the sides of our pathway, all cheering, “Welcome home! Thank you!”

Included in this first group that we saw was our family. My grandma was there in the front row, holding a picture of Grandpa Dick in front of the WWII memorial. We spotted many of Grandpa’s family members in the crowd, cheering for him and all of the Veterans, welcoming them home.

The smiles I saw Grandpa give during these few minutes were some of the biggest I’ve ever seen. We continued on our way, moving through the cheering crowd. Each time we rounded a corner, went down another hallway, even riding the elevator down to the next level, we saw more people.

There was a flag line by the Patriot Guard riders, girl and boy scout troops, Knights of Columbus presenting their swords, a brass band playing patriotic songs, previous Honor Flight participants, a second flag line by I don’t even know who, a color guard of ROTC cadets, and hundreds of people holding flags and signs.

At one point, we passed a group of school children and I could hear them saying things like, “Is that my guy? What does his nametag say? There’s mine!” I quickly deduced that these were some of the kids who had written letters to the Vets for their mail call the day before.

I leaned down to tell Grandpa this, and he stretched his hand out for me to push him closer to the side so he could see the kids better and shake their hands. Many of the kids held handmade signs, and all of them were cheering and smiling. It was surreal.

A belated welcome home celebration for those men and women most deserving of our gratitude, so amazing that my words cannot even describe it.

After what I can estimate to be 20 minutes, we arrived at our final destination, the international room of the Rochester Airport. We heard from several speakers, including Brian Mitchell as the keynote. He is a Korean War Veteran, and Legion Post President. In his speech, Mr. Mitchell talked a lot about the “Greatest Generation,” people who came of age during the Great Depression and lived during the WWII era. Again, I didn’t know much about this saying and decided to learn more upon returning home.

An excerpt from Tom Brokaw’s book, The Greatest Generation, says it best. “At a time in their lives when their days and nights should have been filled with innocent adventure, love, and the lessons of a workday world, they answered the call.”

Richard Heard is welcomed back by his nephew, Stephen Heard.

Through my reading and my personal experience spending 36 hours with members of this greatest generation, I am forever changed. What I had previously thought to be an uncommon attitude, my Grandpa often told us that he didn’t do anything special in serving during WWII.

However, what I’ve learned is that this is an incredibly common attitude of WWII Veterans. When speaking of their service, I heard many of the Vets I traveled with say things like, “I was doing my job. I was doing what was asked of me. I was doing what was expected of me. I was doing what I knew I needed to do.”

Whether they fought on the front lines or remained stateside like my grandpa, the theme was the same: it was no big deal. I never expected to hear that.

I am far from being part of the Greatest Generation. Instead, I am living within a generation of entitlement, of self service, of avoidance. Hearing such a contrast of attitude was shocking to me, and it made me appreciate all service men and women even more.

Grandpa told me that when he got out of the service, he spent a week in Florida with a family member. Then, he took the bus home to Rochester and arrived at the station to no fanfare at all. He returned to his civilian life after serving our country for almost 4 years during the war, much like I return home from a weekend away. The Honor Flight welcome home party, although belated, was an experience I am grateful to have been part of.

Jacob Williams, Richard Heard’s great-grandson, was part of the welcoming commttee on Oct. 25.

Grandpa doesn’t speak of his time in the service often, he doesn’t act like he did anything special, and he certainly doesn’t think he is a hero. This trip taught me that every American Veteran both living and passed, should be honored and celebrated, and their sacrifices never forgotten.

We can’t give every Veteran a ceremony every time we encounter one in our daily lives. But, I’ve now seen the impact it has to reach out your hand and simply say, “Thank you for your service,” to those men and women. They deserve our eternal thanks and gratitude, and we should be willing to tell them.

Please join me this Veteran’s Day: shake a Vet’s hand, attend one of the programs put on to honor our Vets, send a note to a VA Hospital, or spend time reading about the service of so many before our time and telling others what you learned and what it means to you.

Or perhaps most importantly, if you know a Vet, ask them to tell you a little about their service. Most don’t often offer it up freely, but as Mr. Mitchell said in his closing remarks at our Honor Flight welcome home celebration, ” With every passing day, we are losing a bit of history. Make it a priority to learn from our Veterans about their experiences. Every Vet has a story to tell, and while not all are dramatic, every one is important.”

Thank you Honor Flight Rochester for teaching me so much about American history and the people who helped shape this great country. Thank you to all the American Veterans out there. And most of all, thank you, Grandpa, for your service and for the privilege to join you on this most amazing experience. Happy Veteran’s Day.