Sunday, January 31, 2010

America's Surrogate Family

I had the honor and privilege spending part of Sunday afternoon with 110 members of the Army's 113th Field Artillery Regiment returning to the United States after more than a year in Iraq and the approximately 300 strangers welcoming them home to America. It was an experience that will stay with me forever.

As I watched the men and women in camouflage walk down the corridors crowded with hundreds of "Pease Greeters" cheering and clapping at the Portsmouth International Aiport at Pease, their first stop back on U.S. soil, many of the soldiers stopped to play with a baby or reached down to pat the friendly dogs in the crowd-- two simple pleasures we take for granted but denied to them for 13 months.

They did not know they were filing in beneath the first U.S. flag to fly over Guadacanal in 1942, or about the food, drink, free phones and gifts that awaited them in the terminal. When their chartered plane touched down at Pease to refuel and change crews, the soldiers had already been traveling for 25 hours and still had a few hours to go before arriving in Georgia for a week to 10 days for demobilization before returning to their home post in North Carolina.

They were astounded by their warm reception in Portsmouth and told me they were especially greatful for the American-made pizza (pizza is made with goat cheese in Iraq, one soldier told me) and to be able to pat dogs without fear of rabies or that the animals were trained to attack them.

I was part of the Pease Greeters crowd Sunday because I am writing a story for the AARP Bulletin about one portion of this multi-facteted grassroots program -- the hundreds of women who knit and crochet hats for every soldier who passes through Pease en route overseas. It gets cold in the desert and the hats are worn under their helmets.

JoAnne Schottler (the energetic lady in red in the photo to the right) heads up the handmade hats effort, along with making sure each soldier receives an embroidered star cut from a retired flag that's accompanied by a poem telling them they are not forgotten. She also orchestrates a care package program that sends hundreds of pounds of donated snacks, toiletries and fun items to 141 soldiers, some from the area but about two-thirds to soldiers who rarely, if ever, receive mail from home.

I've posted more photos below that tell part of the story from Sunday, but they can never reflect the hundreds of hours contributed by all the Pease Greeters to make each arrival and departure a special memory for the soldiers -- such as the "Cookie Lady" who's now baked over 100,000 cookies for the receptions -- or all the items people throughout the region have donated to the effort that began in 2005 with a small group of retired Marines and airport workers meeting the planes. It’s mushroomed to an alert list of well over 2,000 and is supported by lots of other individuals, as well as business, civic and veteran’s organizations.

Those who are able to come to the airport, do so at all hours of the day and night, often with little notice. They drive from across New Hampshire, as well as Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont to act as "America's surrogate family" offering a final goodbye on U.S. soil or a first welcome home. They never know which branch of the service is coming through the doors or where they're headed until the soldiers appear. And the soldiers have no idea how many people are waiting to greet them.

Sunday was my third Greeters event. The first, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, drew about 500 people meeting an incoming flight. A few days later, I was there in the middle of the night and a snowstorm and there were about 75 diehards waiting at 1:30 a.m. to greet Air Force troops headed to Iraq. It is not unusual to see soldiers tearing up, whether they are incoming or outgoing, when they experience a greeting at Pease. The outgoing flights do have a slightly different feel, but instead of saying "welcome home," the Greeters offer a "we'll see you when you get back" or "be safe." All the troops hear "thank you for your service" no matter what their destination.

Anyone can attend these flight events. Although there are always several former members of the military in the crowd, wearing hats and clothing reflecting their service, there are many many with no direct military connection. The Greeters are all ages and political persuasions. Their motto is "Serving America's Heroes, One Flight at a Time."

They will soon meet their 350th flight. The photos of every military unit that's landed at Pease are displayed along the "Heroes Walk" leading into the terminal. Although a great deal of the food and many other items are donated, each reception costs about $150 to host because some businesses don't provide food free (they've paid Dunkin Donuts over $65,000 to date, for example). It also costs $12 to ship each care package. So if you're inclined to show a little monetary support for this incredible grassroots program, visit for info on how to do that.

The photos below show the food line, the group photo taken after the reception, the presenting of the colors, the "we the old warriors support you, the young warriors" moment between veterans and the younger troops, and the presentation of a sweatshirt signed with messages from the Geeters because "we'd give you the shirt off our backs in thanks."

However, I didn't get photos of the Lindt candy they receive before returning to the plane, the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner, the prayers offered by the chaplain, the piles of stuffed animals for the soldiers to take home to waiting children, the NASCAR hats and t-shirts available, the 18 phones provided free by BayRing and Whaleback Systems for them to call anywhere in the world, the toiletries for them to freshen up in the restrooms, the folks taking photos in order to send any soldier who wants it a CD of pictures taken during the visit, the "Fence Force" that goes to the end of the runway to wave flags and signs saying goodbye as each plane departs, or all the hugs and thank yous the soldiers receive at Pease. If you live nearby, you'll just have to go out to Pease to see all of that for yourself.


Paula Butturini said...

Wonderful, wonderful stuff in your blog today, and only fitting that it's going to get national play in AARP's bulletin.

MaxWriter said...

This made me cry, Pat (sitting at my desk at work, although nobody else is here yet). I can only imagine what that warmth must mean to the soldiers. You and I both have sons who could well be among them, too.

PatRemick said...

It really is an incredible experience and it just boggles my mind that something so huge has been created totally by volunteers -- makes you very proud to be an American, no matter how you feel about the war.

ALittleGuitar said...

well done!

Diane said...

That was certainly a heartwarming story. It happens at DFW Airport, also. It is a privilege to be a part of such an extraordinary experience. Kudos to you and all of the greeters and well-wishers. Keep up the good work. Our people in uniform so deserve to be treated in such a way...

Robin Hagey said...

And we can only hope that one day those greeters won't be necessary. As always, Pat, great job!

Pat Remick said...

Amen. My last trip out there was the same day I learned that the 19-year-old Army PFC son of a man I know through work was killed in Afghanistan. So sad.

Fred said...

Pat, you did an awesome job on the Pease Greeters, Yes they do greet the troops and DFW, Texas and Bangor, Maine, but we are very fortunate to be able to have the reception we have for the troops in New Hampshire, thanks so much !!! JoAnne, Pease Greeters

PatRemick said...

Thanks JoAnne!

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