Hundreds turn out in N.H. to thank returning servicemembers
Foster's Daily Democrat, Dover, N.H.
PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Hundreds of greeters turned out to welcome United States military personnel home from overseas Sunday morning at Pease International Airport.
Dozens of U.S. Army troops walked through hallways lined with clapping, cheering and celebrating citizens, many of whom arrived at the airport terminal well before the plane had landed.
For members of the Pease Greeters, this welcome was just one of hundreds of events that they have put on since 2005. As an organization, their goal is to provide a memorable send off for troops going overseas and an equally meaningful welcome when they arrive home.
“It’s special,” said organization leader Chuck Cove, a U.S. Marine veteran who now supervises the massive, coordinated effort that goes into each departure and arrival ceremony. “You stop and think, this is an all-volunteer group. They deploy again and again to keep us safe.”
The Pease Greeters themselves are comprised of volunteers who take time, rain or shine, day or night, to make sure that no armed services member enters or leaves the Pease airport alone. Sunday’s arrival of troops and service members — many of whom were returning from tours of duty in Afghanistan — was, according to Cove, the 627th flight for the greeters. Cove said the Pease Greeters have shaken hands with more than 180,000 troops and sent 43,000 pounds of care packages overseas.
Greeter Marilyn O’Neil said she looks forward to each time a flight either arrives or leaves from Pease. She said she has been attending for a few years now. According to O’Neil, there is never a flight that comes in where there aren’t already Pease Greeters waiting to meet those onboard.
“We can hardly wait for the net one,” O’Neil said. “It gets you every time.”
The trek down the hallway appeared to be emotional for some service members. Many shook hands with the applauding crowd while others took pictures. A few Army service dogs reveled in the atmosphere as well, occasionally letting out vociferous barks.
It’s a unique experience that veteran Richard DellaPaolera said cannot be found at any other airport. Soldiers pass through Hero’s Walk on their way to a room full of stuffed animals, phones, books, doughnuts, pizza and other welcoming gifts. The greeters do many of the same things when a plane is set to depart, but welcoming soldiers back into the country is particularly rewarding.
“We always like to see them coming home,” DellaPaolera said. “It’s nicer.”
Sunday’s crowd was particularly large. DellaPaolera estimate that around 250 people had gathered to welcome the troops home. Cove said there have been times where Pease Greeters slept on terminal benches and chairs in order to wait for a flight to come in. Veterans of wars and conflicts past, including at least one World War II veteran, shook hands with those who now serve in their place. Some visitors brought their dogs, one of which was particularly excited to greet an amiable service woman, jumping up in an attempt to lick her face.
After getting off the plane, troops scattered about the terminal, eating pizza, ice cream, doughnuts, bread and more. There were peaches, boxes of cookies and coffee as well, and a phone bank from which the men and women could make their first call since landing. It’s a warm welcome that the soldiers appreciate.
“I’d like to thank everybody that showed up,” said Lt. Col. Bill Warner to a crowd of greeters during a welcoming ceremony. Warner said this was his third stop at Pease. “Every single time it’s very impressive. The pride that I feel, we sincerely appreciate it.”
During a ceremony following the initial welcome, Cove spoke at length, telling stories about his time as a Marine and expressing his gratitude for the service of the troops. Warner was presented with a memorial sweat shirt signed by many of the Pease Greeters and other visitors.
“The road to freedom is a toll road,” Cove said. “Thanks for paying our way. You don’t complain. You do your job, and we love you for it.”