One Flight At A Time
Pat is inspired by Ida Gondalez, featured in our homepage video today "A Mother's Journey To Light," to tell us the moving story of a local grassroots organization in her hometown of Portsmouth, New Hampshire that honors and acknowledges America's military men and women.
Serving America's Heroes, One Flight at a Time
Today’s video about Gold Star mother Ida Gonzalez, and the way she honors the memory of her beloved son Michael, is a poignant reminder of all the sacrifices made by our fellow Americans in the military and their families -- and how important it is to acknowledge them.
My hometown of Portsmouth, NH, is home to an exceptional grassroots organization that does so on a regular basis, having now met over 450 flights of soldiers heading to, or returning from, overseas areas of conflict.
The “Pease Greeters” – whose motto is “Serving America's Heroes, One Flight at a Time” -- converge upon the Portsmouth International Airport at the former Pease Air Force Base at all hours of the day and night, often with little notice, to act as “America's surrogate family” offering the troops a final goodbye on U.S. soil or a first welcome home when their chartered planes touch down to refuel or change crews.
The Greeters, whom I’ve seen number as few as 75 for a 1:30 a.m. flight in the middle of a snowstorm or as many as 400 on a balmy weekend day, never know beforehand which branch of the service is coming through the doors or where they’re headed. And the soldiers have no idea how many people are waiting to greet them. It’s not unusual to see a man or woman in uniform brush away a few tears when they find out.
As the solders enter the corridors packed with “Pease Greeters” cheering, clapping and reaching out to shake their hands, they may stop to enjoy long-denied simple pleasure of interacting with a baby. Or they may pat one of the dogs in the crowd, enjoying the experience without fear of rabies or that the animals were trained to attack them.
The soldiers do not know they are filing in beneath the first U.S. flag to fly over Guadalcanal in 1942, or about the bounty of donated food, drink, free phones and gifts awaiting them in another area of the terminal.
The outgoing flights 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.
Photos are taken throughout the time they are in Portsmouth, often no longer than an hour, and include a group shot to be added to the “Hall of Heroes” gallery of photographs from every flight. Sadly, these pictures might be the final ones taken of a departing soldier and later become a sad memento for his survivors.
The Greeters travel from across New Hampshire, as well as Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont. Although there a good number are retired military in hats and clothing reflecting their service, anyone can part of this extraordinary experience. Launched in 2005 with a small group of retired Marines and airport workers, the Pease Greeters have mushroomed to an alert list of well over 2,000 and are supported by business, civic and veteran’s organizations.
The program extends far beyond clapping or offering food. For example, there are hundreds of women who knit and crochet hats for every soldier who passes through Pease en route overseas because it gets cold in the desert and the hats can be worn under their helmets. Every soldier receives an embroidered star cut from a retired flag that’s accompanied by a poem telling them they are not forgotten. There’s also a care package program that sends hundreds of pounds of donated snacks, toiletries and fun items monthly to soldiers overseas.
Each airport event ends with a ceremony with a presentation of the colors, the Star-Spangled Banner, a prayer, and a “we the old warriors support you, the young warriors” salute between veterans and the troops. The ranking officer on each flight is presented with a sweatshirt signed by the Greeters because “we'd give you the shirt off our backs in thanks.” The soldiers re-board the plane to find the knit hats, stars and chocolates. As the plane departs, a “Fence Force” of Greeters goes to the end of the runway to wave flags and signs, no matter the time or weather.
I’ve had the privilege of participating in a few of these events and each time it makes me grateful for our men and women in uniform, and also the generosity and kindness of those who support them in this and every way.