First-time Pease Greeters welcome troops; find experience rewarding, unforgettableLisa Martineau
NewHampshire.com November 10. 2017 5:38AM
A large 767 pulled up to the gate to begin unloading its passengers and a crowd of people began to gather at the window. The excitement was building.
We were at Portsmouth International Airport at Pease, and we were there to become "Pease Greeters," ready to shake the hands of more than 200 soldiers and say "Thank you."
This was Flight #2.
It's not often one gets to show their patriotism to this country in a personal way. The 4th of July has become a commercial holiday rather than a celebration of the birth of our nation. Memorial Day is confusing to some. While it signifies something very solemn, we spend the day enjoying what we call the "unofficial" start to summer." Memorial Day is actually a day of remembrance for those who made the ultimate sacrifice by giving their lives in service to our country. Do not confuse that with Veterans Day, especially to a living veteran, or you might get an earful.
Veterans Day is the day we give thanks to all veterans for their service to our country. This is the day you might find a veteran, sometimes at a parade, and thank them for their service.
But, you can say thanks throughout the year. The "Pease Greeters" do.
On a sunny day in late October we had an opportunity to do just that at Portsmouth International Airport at Pease, and not because it was any of those holidays, but because the men and women who stepped off that plane were standing on American soil for the last time before heading off to Germany before they went on to wherever they were deployed.
The "Pease Greeters" are Volunteers who arrive at the terminal to show their patriotism and gratitude to soldiers on their way home or war. Flights are either leaving the country, deployed to various locations around the world, or they are coming home. If it's the latter, the soldiers are stepping on American soil again after a lengthy time away from home. If they are departing, Portsmouth marks their last stop on the way to a foreign nation. The "Pease Greeters" expect to greet 300 planes this year. They had already greeted 220 and today would make 222. In total, today's flights represented the "Pease Greeters" 1,335th and 1,336th total flights greeted. That's thousands of soldiers.
It doesn't matter whether it's 4 a.m. or 4 p.m., you will find "greeters" along the hallway welcoming the troops. The soldiers are met with free coffee and donuts and phone banks, installed by Whaleback™ Industries, allow these brave men and women to call anywhere in the world free of charge. They are given other things too - basketballs, playing cards, footballs and other items - to use during the downtime of their deployment. The Pease Greeters then gather in a large room for a short ceremony. The National Anthem is sung. The Pledge of Allegiance is said. Prayers are read and group photos are taken. Every commander is given the "shirt off our back," sweatshirts that the greeters have signed and scribbled kind words of thanks on. There is also a reading of the Star poem – Stars from retired flags with a poem are given to every man and woman who come through. Veterans from previous wars are acknowledged and saluted. A presentation tells these men and women who these volunteers are. Pease Greeters. And finally, before they go, the officer of the day salutes the troops with the following words, "We, the old Warriors, salute you, the Young Warriors."
It was official. We had become Pease Greeters.
On that day in October several hundred greeters were lined up and down the hallway to thank the soldiers of Flight #2. Some of these men and women were on their first deployment, while others had been deployed several times.
Applause and cheers broke out at the first sign of camouflage. When the first soldier rounded the corner the applause got louder, with hoots and hollering filling the terminal. They arrived as heroes. These men and women had left Fort Bliss, Texas four hours earlier. Before them stood a large group of patriots, greeting them with smiles, thank you's, words of encouragement, hugs, and handshakes. What was most surprising was that they moved down the line with their hand extended, saying "Thank you" to us. It was tempting no to say "no, no, no, thank YOU."
There was even a funny moment when a soldier asked a young boy who was greeting the men in uniform. The soldier asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. He enthusiastically replied, "A sniper!"
At one point a young female soldier walked past with tears running down her cheeks. She must have been thinking, "who are these people?"
We were thinking the same. Not about the greeters, no. We wondered what was going through the minds of the soldiers who were standing before us.
We spoke to several of the soldiers, asking them were they were from, where they were going, why did they join?
That's when we were introduced to Sargeant Joey Attkisson, Company Medic for Alpha Co. 1-184IN. From his perspective, as he looked out the window, he realized they were landing on a military airstrip evidenced by the fact that there were Air Force Planes parked on the tarmac. His immediate reaction was one of grief because he had never been on the east coast and he hoped to see the surrounding area and local community.
"However, once we stepped off the plane, that grief subsided rather quickly after entering the air terminal," he explained.
"I don't think I've ever seen so many people lined up to greet us. I know for certain that I have never shaken so many hands in my life at one place and time. It was a pretty overwhelming feeling. I found myself thinking, "These folks have no clue who we are, but they took time out of their Friday to come greet us." This type of patriotism seems so rare; Sure, people always say they support the military, but I rarely see them take time from their day to greet us in such a way." Attkisson said.
He was surprised yet again by the coffee, donuts and various other treats laid out on the table in the terminal. A welcome surprise to a soldier who had just experienced a four hour flight.
"After the snacks, banter with local citizens, and the farewell ceremony, another emotional event took place for me. This event might have been one of the single-most substantial events to date in my life."
It dawned on me that this place (Portsmouth) will be the last glimpse of American civilization for the next nine months at least. This hit me pretty hard. Additionally, it served as another harsh reminder that we are actually deploying to a country that is in no way shape or form like our own."
On the way out the Pease Greeters stepped outside to stand along the airport fence line, American flags in hand, waving goodbye to the plane filled with American soldiers.
Attkisson described the experience this way. "It's definitely a moment in time that I will never forget."
Nor will we.
For more information about the Pease Greeters, visit http://www.peasegreeters.org/