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All-female honor flight heads to Washington

By LAURA DAMON | The Newport Daily News | Published: April 14, 2019

(Tribune News Service) — Cynthia Sexton of Portsmouth, Rhode Island, recalled the sacrifices one woman made while in the military in 1965 — a time when more women had to choose between families and military careers.

"She couldn't have a family and serve back then," Sexton said in a recent phone interview. As an Air Force veteran, the stories Sexton swapped with other Rhode Island military veterans was a particularly memorable part of her participation in the all-female Honor Flight Victory on April 6.

The no-cost sightseeing trip to Washington, D.C., was organized by the Rhode Island Fire Chiefs Honor Flight Hub; it was the organization's first all-female honor flight and was held in honor of Cpl. Holly Charette, the first Rhode Island female military member killed after 9/11.

Sexton said the veterans were met with gratitude "from absolute strangers." They were greeted in the nation's capital by singers, legislators and beauty queens. The appreciation shown toward the 44 female veterans swelled her heart, but Sexton acknowledged the lack of such appreciation for Vietnam War and Vietnam War-era veterans when they returned home more than 40 years ago.

She grew up in Illinois but came to Aquidneck Island to attend the Naval War College; she graduated in 1997. Sexton, formerly Perrotti, later served on the Portsmouth School Committee.

While in the military, Sexton worked with major defense companies as they researched and developed weapons systems, she said. She conducted some testing evaluations in the field but most of the time she worked behind a desk.

After just over 20 years of service in the military, Sexton retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel and now teaches at the Naval War College.

Her entrance into the military "was really financially driven," Sexton said, because it would help fund her education. But with "the neat things and opportunities ... I just kept going."

"I'm so thankful for those opportunities, and I'm really proud."

The group of women who participated in Honor Flight Victory — ranging in age from 34 to 97 — visited various memorials and soaked in the sights of the budding cherry blossoms. At dinner, "mail call" brought them letters from elementary-school children across the country who expressed gratitude.

Sexton was part of a group of five Newport County women who participated in the honor flight. One of them is Sandra Hovanec of Tiverton, a Navy veteran who served from 1981 to 1986 as a data processing technician.

"I joined the [N]avy to get an education and to see some of the world," Hovanec wrote in an email to The Daily News. She now works at the Officer Training Command at Naval Station Newport as an in-processing administrator for Officer Candidate School.

"Treatment of [v]eterans [has] changed from when I was growing up. Vets coming back from Viet Nam were not treated very well," Hovanec wrote. But in recent years, people are more receptive to military veterans, Hovanec said.

"Honor Flight has humbled me but also shown me how much the American people on the whole appreciate their veterans. Honor Flight Victory brought me together with very unique, special and wonderful women when I would never have met them otherwise. I learned about the individual experiences of each war, WWII, Korea and Viet Nam, ones you won't find in a class room or text books."

Particularly memorable, though, was the reception in each airport — Providence and Washington — that included flags, bands and gratitude. "But the moment that stands out the most was when Taps was played after the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery," Hovanec wrote.

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