Friday, December 18, 2009

Pease Greeters Roll Out the Welcome Mat for Arriving Troops

By Larry Favinger
Staff Columnist
A tradition begun in 2005 continues today to impact the lives of many veterans, men and woman on active military duty, and civilians.
It was in that spring that the Seacoast Detachment, Marine Corps League met the first flight of troops landing at Pease and returning from the battlefront in the Near East. Since then, according to Jack P. Savastano of North Hampton, the Pease Greeters public affairs officer, more than 320 flights of men and women, going to and coming from the battlefront, have been met.
“This is not a small piece of Americana,” Savastano said earlier this week. “It’s a big piece of Americana.”
Back in 2005, the Pease Development Authority noticed the situation with the troops coming in and contacted the Marine Corps League. It has grown from there.
“We started basically with an empty air terminal,” Savastano said. “Now you’re talking overflow parking.”
Since it began, the Pease Greeters group has not missed a single flight and has grown to well over 100 elders and youths, all offering their thanks and greetings for these heroes, said Ed Johnson, chairman of the group, in a letter on the Greeters’ website.
Now, veterans and civilians of all ages join the Greeters, who come from throughout the Seacoast area of Southern Maine and Southeastern New Hampshire and beyond. “The kids are very happy to come meet the troops,” Savastano said.
Even as the reputation of the Pease Greeters grows, there is, Savastano said, “Still a little bit of shock and awe” once they arrive here.
Many of them bring gifts, especially those retuning from overseas. These artifacts presented by the troops are on display in the terminal.
One of the main displays is from a different era, a 48-star American flag that hit the beach at Guadalcanal in 1942. One of the Greeters, Jerry McConnell, Savastano said, was with that flag when it went ashore.
With the crowds growing, at times even including a high school band, new sound equipment was needed, so a group of students from Marshwood Middle School raised $1,600 to buy a new, bigger system in two hours at a bowl-a-thon.
The Greeters don’t know what services those arriving are from, but as soon as they find out, that service’s song is played in the terminal as the troops enter and they are greeted by handshakes, cheers and flashing cameras.
While on the ground they are welcome to call anywhere they wish on a special bank of phones. Initially, Johnson said, cell phones were freely offered by the Greeters for the troops to call home with news. Now a bank of phones may be used free of charge, exclusively for the veterans, courtesy of Whaleback Systems, a company located in the Pease Tradeport.
There are refreshments available and, if by chance a soldier comes from the area, efforts are made to get the family together for at least a few minutes.
Savastano noted that parents of one arrival were contacted and brought to the terminal by police escort. Another troop mentioned he had a brother in the Coast Guard serving “at the shipyard up here.”
Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Security was contacted. They located the young man and he was brought to Pease for a short but heart-felt reunion with his twin brother.
There have been troops come through who were born here while a parent was serving at the now closed Pease Air Force Base or the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.
The stories are endless.
Each group that comes through is photographed and those pictures are displayed in the terminal and on a website the troops can access.
In a short ceremony they are welcomed, there is a short session where old warriors meet the young warriors, and each of the troops is given gifts, most of which are donated by people and businesses in the area.
Lindt Chocolate and the Bose Corporation have donated items, among others, area women have baked thousands of cookies, and the commander of each unit is presented a sweatshirt signed by the Greeters.
Savastano has been impressed by the faces of the young Americans who have come through the terminal.
“You look at the faces of these kids,” he said. “It’s infectious. It is an eagerness to serve their country. That’s what you see in their faces.”
Information on arriving flights and the nationally known and honored Pease Greeters is available at the group’s website,