story & photo
by Vito J. Leo
This Memorial Day was truly memorable for 125 World War II veterans from around the state who were beneficiaries of a free one-day visit to the nation’s capital.
On the Saturday before the holiday recognizing those who gave the ultimate sacrifice in defense of their country, veterans had a chance to reminisce about combat experiences while basking in the shadow of the D.C. monument commemorating American valor in the Second World War.
Thanks to the hard work and determination of Norwich resident Christopher Coutu and donations of grateful citizens, AmericanWarrior allows veterans to enjoy a tour of Washington’s war memorials.
“This was the chance of a lifetime for a fellow who hasn’t had the time to get to Washington on my own,” said Charles Chaet of New London, at 83, a self-described “young one” among the veterans on the trip, “Most of us are up there in our 80’s so it was very tiresome doing all that walking,” said Normand Harnois. He left his Norwich home at 6 a.m. and didn’t get back until midnight, “But I enjoyed every minute of it,” he said. “It was my first time seeing the WWII Memorial and I thought it was fantastic. I was very impressed. It was well worth the long day and all the walking involved,” Normand said.
To assist those vets who needed a helping hand, a shoulder to lean on or a wheelchair escort, volunteers known as “guardians” made the trip at their own expense, with each guardian assigned three veterans to assist.
One of the guardians was Uncasville resident Bob Hathaway whose trio of vets included his father, Lorenzo Hathaway, also from Uncasville. “It was amazing to see these guys, every one of them had a tear in their eyes, they were so appreciative of what everyone did for them,” Bob said, describing the group’s arrival at the D.C. airport.
“There were hundreds of people waiting for them to get off the plane, a band, the honor guard, people shaking their hands,” he said. “My father said he was shocked — that he never expected anything like that. And then when we got home, at Bradley, there was another 500 people waiting there to welcome us a nine o’clock at night.”
Bob wanted to make sure that organizer Chris Coutu got credit for “putting that look on the faces of all those men.”
“That Chris is quite a kid,” Bob said. “What he does for these veterans, he deserves all the praise. Most of these men are three times his age but he makes them feel so relaxed. He treats them all like family.”
That “family” grew to over 325 veterans who made the trip since Chris first turned his idea into reality a couple years ago.
“Many of the veterans are overwhelmed by everything that takes place throughout the day, but we make sure they know it is their day to take it all in,” said Chris who is already planning the next plane ride, perhaps later this year. “If funding permits, we could send another 200,” he said, noting that veterans should visit www.AmericanWarrior.us for an application or information.
Veterans are also available to visit schools and organizations “to talk about patriotism, freedom, democracy and sacrifice,” Chris said.