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Honor Flight Maine returns home from emotional trip

A total of 109 veterans and volunteers flew to the Washington, D.C., area to visit memorials.

WASHINGTON, D.C., USA — The World War II memorial in Washington, D.C., is vast.

Its open fountain and wide, circular path are surrounded by 56 stoic pillars — one for each state and territory — and an even larger arch on opposite sides, representing the Atlantic and Pacific theaters.

It conveys the enormous task of defeating the world's greatest evil.

But, on one October morning, one small woman cast a giant shadow on the monument's stone.

Florence Smith is 100 years old, going on 30. The Jonesport native laughed, told stories, and cracked jokes as her wheelchair was positioned between that of two male veterans — one who served in Korea and the other in Vietnam — for a photo.

"A rose between two thorns," she smiled, then gave a good, long laugh.

She was a rose that weekend. Of 109 veterans and volunteers, many of whom were veterans themselves, who traveled to the capital for Maine's final Honor Flight of 2022, Smith was the sole traveler who served in the Second World War. 

She served in the Coast Guard and remembered exactly where she was as news of the D-Day invasion spread throughout her base on June 6, 1944.

Honor Flight Maine is a nonprofit that raises money each year to arrange multiple trips to D.C. over the spring, summer, and fall. With Florence hitching a ride on the last trip of the year, that meant she could see the memorial for the first time.

"I'm so glad that I had a chance to come and be a part of this because I never, ever dreamed that I would," Florence said.

That may have been beyond her dreams, but two miles west, in Arlington, Virginia, the Military Women's Memorial might as well be the house that Florence built.

She was an original donor to the memorial project before builders broke ground, and on Saturday, she not only returned to it but was given a hero's welcome, along with her granddaughter, Stacey Balicki, a retired Air Force combat nurse.

"To experience it with her and see both of our names, with me being retired and her being a World War II veteran, it's pretty amazing," Balicki smiled.

Meanwhile, those who served in the Vietnam War made up the majority of vets on the trip, and emotions were drastically more mixed as they approached the black-walled monument that stretches far across the ground near the Lincoln Memorial.

There, Stanley Pelletier slowly moved along the brick walkway in front of the wall. He had not been looking forward to this moment.

"I almost backed out," he said about the entire Honor Flight. "I think this was the worst for me, knowing I was coming here."

NEWS CENTER Maine met Pelletier at Portland International Jetport before the flight on Friday. The Vietnam vet never wanted to see the wall memorial dedicated to those killed in the conflict. He never wore his veteran hat, all until his wife convinced him six months before the trip.

He looked up at the wall and shook his head at the sheer number of names etched in its black stone. He did not know anyone who had died. Instead, the 58,000 names seemed to tower over him as a single wave.

"I just can't believe how many names," he said quietly. "You read about it, but you don't realize how many there are until you see this yourself."

Some monuments are striking by their scale, others by their context.

On the other side of the Lincoln Memorial from the Vietnam Wall, visitors to the massive capital park walked through a small grove of trees and came upon the striking Korean War memorial. 

Nineteen stainless steel statues are stopped in time, marching through a frozen field in ponchos. Soldiers faced brutal cold temperatures during the conflict. Korean War veteran Verian Beebe thought the memorial perfectly represented the conditions faced by those who saw combat.

"They sure did their duty, and they had cold weather to deal with," he remarked. "They really went through Hell on earth to fight that war."

Some came on the trip to heal. Some Mainers at the Vietnam Memorial found the names of family and friends, and they etched them from the stone onto paper to bring home with them.

Some came to connect. While Pelletier was not made whole by his experience at the wall, his weekend was otherwise filled with smiles and laughter shared with his fellow Vietnam veterans.

And some, Like Florence Smith, made the trip of a lifetime. She finally saw the World War II Memorial and shared the spotlight with her granddaughter at the Military Women's Memorial. 

As for everyone else, it will take a long while to forget their time with Florence or her full belly laugh.

Not that she plans to go anywhere anytime soon.

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