Pease Greeters Welcome Their 600th Flight
The Portsmouth International Airport at Pease has earned its’ International” moniker hundreds of times over during the past eight years. The location of the airport in New Hampshire’s Seacoast region (and near the Maine and Massachusetts coastlines too) is advantageous as a refueling and replenishment stop for military-chartered passenger flights. These civilian airliners can’t air-to-air refuel or fly nonstop between the U.S. and their southwest or central Asian destinations. A band of patriotic volunteers makes this short stop (routinely up to three hours long) a memorable experience for all. The Pease Greeters have now welcomed more than 600 flights since 2005, and their kindness and patriotism has been shared with tens of thousands of soldiers, sailors, and airmen.
A few thousand volunteers collectively make up the Pease Greeters organization. As the story goes, the Greeters lineage began during a simple act of kindness. The Airport Manager heard about a charter flight full of troops stopping at Pease for fuel; he gathered a group of airport employees to greet the troops and thank them for their service. Prior to the next scheduled flight, the Marine Corps League was notified, and their volunteers augmented the original group. Word about the flights spread; the third flight was met by members of multiple veterans organizations. By the fourth flight, spouses joined the greeting and over time the organization grew into an all-volunteer, non-profit organization.
Chuck Cove, the Chairman of the Pease Greeters, writes that the organization’s mission is threefold:
1) To welcome troops passing through Pease International Airport on their way to, or from, Afghanistan or Iraq, or any other areas of conflict in any part of the world.
2) To create within the Pease Trade Port an environment that reflects the respect and high esteem in which we hold all veterans.
3) To promote broad participation by the general public in this welcoming of heroes, paying special attention to the education of school children by instilling respect and admiration for the troops through formal ceremonies for each flight.
Although heavily infused with military veterans, one isn’t required to have prior military service to join the Pease Greeters. Each greeting is just a chance to meet some of our military men and women and thank them for their service. No pre-registration is necessary; a web site or recorded telephone message contains the dates and times of arrival for subsequent flights. Flights arrive at Portsmouth during all hours of the day and night, in blazing sunshine or bone-chilling cold. You never know who’ll be the next Pease Greeter… former President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush have greeted troops, as has Vermont native Captain Richard Phillips of the M/V Maersk Alabama. Professional and college athletic teams have sent representatives; recently the Boston Bruins’ national anthem singer Rene Rancourt led the singing.
The Greeters’ main venue is the airport’s terminal building, which easily accommodates the few hundred troops and the variable amount of Greeters that come to meet them… some flights have attracted 400 or more volunteers. Although there is a core of “regulars” that try to greet every flight’s arrival (more than a handful of volunteers have missed just four or five out of hundreds of flights), other volunteers attend irregularly. Greeters aren’t all two-legged, as a number of the volunteers’ friendly dogs attend and thrive on the attention many troops show them… there’s unconditional love all around.
The airport’s terminal building has become a museum during the 8 years that the Greeters have operated, and is divided into a few specific areas. The Heroes Walk is the ramp that links the upper arrival/departure lounge to the main terminal building. It is here where disembarking troops pass through lines of Greeters welcoming them with applause and handshakes. The Heroes Wall is really the walls that form the Heroes Walk corridor. The walls are covered with hundreds of 8 X 10 photos of every group of servicemen and -women that have passed through Pease during these flights (although some groups opt out due to security reasons). Underneath the photos, unit patches, challenge coins and other gifts are displayed. If a veteran wants to return to find their photo on the Wall in the future, a reference binder is kept, containing information about every photo and flight.
The Hall of Flags contains many display cases, containing flags sent in appreciation of their short time spent at Pease. One notable banner hanging from the ceiling is a 48-star flag that flew during the Marine invasion of Guadalcanal in 1942. Another flag, the centerpiece of The Star Spangled Banner Project, has some very interesting history too. The 15-star flag has been flown on the only three U.S ships still afloat that have battled and defeated piracy on the high seas in the past two centuries… the USS Constitution, M/V Maersk Alabama, and the USS Bainbridge. One could spend hours roaming the halls reading about, and viewing the collection of modern day history.
There is a format for each Pease greeting ceremony. Hours before a scheduled arrival, volunteers set up tables to hold donated food and drink, hook up the bank of free telephones that the troops can use while on the ground, and unpack a small canteen containing used books, games, and even kid’s toys (especially for returning troops to bring home). After a flight arrives, passengers clear customs if required and the aforementioned group photo is taken. Then the troops enter the terminal and make their way down the Heroes Walk lined with Pease Greeters, to the lower concourse where the food, etc. is laid out. For the next hour, Greeters and troops mix and talk about any number of subjects… whether it be military service between veterans, or the local New Hampshire/ Maine/ Massachusetts geographic area, jobs, education, and many more topics. It’s surprising how quickly strangers become friends at Pease.
Midway into the stay, a ceremony rich in patriotism is staged for the passengers. The active military members assemble on one side of the large arrival/departure hall, and the Pease Greeters gather on the other side. The presentation of the colors is followed by the singing of the National Anthem. An invocation is given by a chaplain, and the story of how each service member will receive a star cut out of a retired U.S. flag is told; it is a custom begun during the Korean War and is continued today. Then, in recognition of the sacrifices the troops are making, the Pease Greeters symbolically give “the shirt off their back” to those service members. Sweatshirts are signed by the Greeters before the flight arrives, and one of these is given to the flight’s commanding officer to take with them to remind each serviceman and woman that they’re not forgotten back home, especially at Pease. Free phone cards are distributed for all service members too, with a promise that more are available for the asking so anyone can communicate with family or friends here in the U.S. while deployed overseas. There are a few remarks from both a Greeters representative and from a ranking service member. Finally, the “old veterans” in the room give a rousing cheer to the “new veterans” in the room, and the assembly breaks up until departure time is called.
There’s one final Greeting line as the volunteers form a column and wish the boarding troops farewell. Then, some Greeters (known as the Fence Force) drive to the end of the runway and unfurl U.S. flags and signs in a final patriotic salute for the departing service members.
On April 27, 2013 the Pease Greeters met their 600th flight, an Atlas Air Boeing 767 destined to Germany after its’ brief stop in New Hampshire. The 229 service members aboard the flight received an outpouring of gratitude and friendliness from the Pease Greeters, much like those aboard the 599 previous flights received. By early May, the tally was up to 603 aircraft, with a break in the schedule for a few weeks. The motto on the back of “the shirt off our back” of the Pease Greeters is that they’re “Thanking Our Troops One Flight At A Time”. In the past eight years, tens of thousands of troops have been greeted and thanked for their service aboard these flights.
To make a donation or to learn much more about the Pease Greeters, visit their web site: www.peasegreeters.org