Pease Greeters, and what it is like to be involved

An emotional experience of gratitude and appreciation

Bill Pappou Drew, story and photographs

With patriotic music in the background and the clapping and cheering of a thankful 4:20 am audience, tears of pride came to my eyes and I am humbled as I personally shake hands with troops returning from service in Afghanistan.

Thirty thousand (30,000+) more service men and women to be sent to Afghanistan are the numbers seen in the headlines. Something is happening in this world but the view from here is very distant and almost irrelevant to our everyday lives.

Members of a group called Pease Greeters come to the Pease Airport Terminal to meet planeloads of troops going to and coming from Iraq and Afghanistan. The purpose for the hour or so layover is for a change of crew, and the time is made useful with a stretch of the legs and some sharing. Shake the hand of one returning from duty after a year in harm's way and it is an emotional experience. It brings home the reality of the commitment and sacrifices these individuals are making in service to our country.

Shaking hands and greeting incoming service men and women.

OK. Not wanting to make this a one picture article, I need to back up a bit.

A few weeks ago a fellow New Castle resident, Stu Hume, called me up and invited me to go with him to be a Pease Greeter and I accepted the invitation. It was a daytime arrival and there were approximately two hundred in attendance; Veterans, seniors, middle school students, firemen, volunteers, and the general public like us.  I was so exhilarated by the experience that the other day I attended another arrival this time in the early morning hours.

Capt. Paul Lucy and Capt. Ed Johnson
It is 3:30 am as I enter through the front door. Behind and near a podium on my right I notice a couple of stern and determined looking individuals with loads of military bearing and obviously members of one of the elite branches of the military, The Marine Corps League .

One has to be Rye resident Capt. Ed Johnson, USMC, who I have heard is a major driving force in the huge success of The Pease Greeters.   

To my left is a table with a sweatshirt spread out upon it with participants inscribing personal greetings. The shirt is later awarded to the commanding office of the unit being celebrated. Notice the dog. Greeters are encouraged to bring their dogs as it is comforting for the troops.

I overcome my shyness and introduce myself to Ed stating that I am on Jack Driscoll's superior staff of Rye Reflections reporters and that even though someone from our magazine has written a previous article years ago about the Greeters, I wanted to do an update of the program. As with any venture like this, you get the royal treatment when you start at the top.

Nearly four years ago, alerted to an incoming flight of troops arriving back from Afganistan, Bill Hopper, Pease Airport Manager contacted his superior George Bald, Director of the Pease Development Authority (PDA). Together with Bill and Al Weston, Maintenance manager of PDA, George, a veteran of the Viet Nam era and Bill, a Marine, recall the lack of welcome home greetings of returning servicemen and women. George put out the word. "Go buy coffee and donuts and do anything necessary to make them welcome and comfortable." The three of them attended that first flight and George asked a trooper, "how can we help? The response was, "coffee, donuts, and flush toilets." Subsequent flights continued to be supported by employees of the PDA in the same manner with the addition of permission to have the troops use employee cell phones, free of charge. The greeter program begins.

Bill began enlisting outside support particularly through his Marine friends who were donating blood to the Marine Corps Gallon club, administered by the American Red Cross.  Frank Wisinski, Commandant of the Seacoast detachment of the Marine Corps League suggested contacting Ed Johnson, who was in the incoming Commandant, as any program setup would be under his watch.

With George Bald's encouragement and full support sometimes running interference for some of the group's activities, along with major assistance from Alan Weston, the formation of the Pease Six took place; Pease Greeters is founded.

This model of "citizen participation" that the Pease Six has worked on so diligently to get off the ground has been well published and awareness of its success and accomplishments is well renowned. The ultimate was a trip to the White House for an award presentation.  

The Pease Six, in the Oval office.  From the left: Chuck Cove Vietnam Veteran & Co-Chairman, Capt. Ed Johnson Korean War Veteran, & Chairman, Charlie Nichols WWII Marine, President, George W. Bush, NH Senator, John Sununu, Hank Page group chaplain, Alan Weston  Director of Maintenance PDA, Bill Hopper, Pease Airport Manager.  Photo courtesy of Chuck Cove

Capt. Ed relates, "When he entered the Oval office, eighth grade graduate Charlie Nichols, struggled to get to his feet from his wheelchair. A hand reached out to help him -- President George W. Bush -- helping an old Marine Corporal. It doesn't get any better than that."

Prior to the arrival of the troops, the crowd circulates and exchange pleasantries with one another. Some wait along the long walkways within the terminal building. Lining the walls are mementos of history; flags of all sorts, pictures of various military units that have participated in the "Greeting" experience, and patches, patches, and more patches, each designating a unit or organizational association and others denoting individual specialization.

There is still some time before the troops land, proceed through customs, and then enter the terminal area, so Ed shows me around. Down the long corridor we first encounter cohorts Rudy Mayo, USMC, and Bill McBride.

Placed along the walls in the corridors of the Terminal building, is historic memorabilia. The area is now labeled, The Heroes' Walk and the Hall of Flags. Photographs and patches of some of the units that have processed through here are posted. As time has gone on, new additions of historic value have arrived for placement into the collection. The area is becoming a museum.

Left: Capt. Ed points to a flag that was flown, on 4 July, 2009, on the USS Arizona, Pearl Harbor Memorial.
Right: Here he is in front of photographs and patches of some of the units that have been "Greeted."

An early addition came by way of a pilot being greeted. Capt. Adonis Arvanitakis of the 4th SOS, reached into his belongings and pulled out a flag and said, “I was going to keep this as a souvenir, but it belongs here. It was on one of the gunships that took out Al Zarqarwi , Iraq’s most noted terrorist who was videotaping and allowing public beheadings." At the time, the US was offering a $25million bounty on Zarqawi's head – Dead or Alive – the same sum they are offering for Bin Laden himself.

In the serving room free coffee and donuts (out of pocket cost: $65,000 to date) are lined on the table along with other nibbles. Shown below is the new airline flight crew performing the sampling chores in preparation for their boarding the plane and going through their departure check list.

At the other end of the room there is a counter and table set up displaying stuffed animals to take home as small homecoming gifts for their family.

Initially, the PDA and Pease Six dug into their own pockets for funds to buy needed supplies and pay expenses. One contributor, a young boy, nine year old Jonathan Francis, personally contributed $142.85. He raised the money by planting a garden then selling the crop. There are many many stories. Contributions of funds, time, effort, sacrifice, and the unique ability to share, are characteristics of Pease Greeters.

All services and goods available to the troops are free. These include food, pizza, ice cream sundaes, coffee, tea and other edibles. These and other products and services are donated freely by a wide variety of suppliers and organizations.

After her husband had been greeted on his way overseas, Melinda Smith, wife of Captain Mike Smith, USMC, called from California to say how appreciative she was that she and the kids had an opportunity to talk with him via a cellphone  made available to him prior to his leaving American soil.  The importance of the cell phone prompted a most generous donation from Whaleback Systems, of Portsmouth in setting up eighteen (18) phone stations in a separate room now known as “Melinda’s Room.” All calls for free to anywhere in the world.

The magnitude of the importance of a cell phone goes even further.  The Cell Phones for Soldiers program, now with nationwide coverage, started in April 2004 by 13-year-old Brittany Bergquist and her 12-year-old brother Robbie, of Norwell, Massachusetts. It is a marvelous story of individual people making a difference.  Click "here" and "here" for more information.

On the left, Melinda's room. Right: In December, Robbie and Brittany were Pease Greeters distributing "Cell Phones for Soldiers" to the troops.

Al Weston, Maintenance Director for the PDA, is at the center of the action with behind the scenes activity in getting the terminal ready, coordinating with customs, getting the flags and other items hung on the wall and the physical setup for each greeting session. There is also a large number of volunteers who get little recognition but give of themselves, as Al does. Their combined efforts make it all happen.

Badges are a staple with the group. Individual ones are made up for special occasions and celebrations. Here, Frank Kervin is on the working end of a press to make the final product. Dick shows a favorite position, on the side of the sacred cap worn by many of the Greeters.

Frank hard at work with Dick Forde showing the final product in place.

On the left, the "Fence Force" is depicted saluting the departing aircraft. The button at the right depicts the award event in the Oval room of the White House, Washington, D.C. with George W. Bush.

Once they have walked the corridor of Greeters, the crowd follows behind.

Fifteen year olds, having cheered and greeted the unit, are on their way into the reception area to talk with the warriors.

Respect is shown on both sides. Here, 89 year old Ana Labrie is thanked for coming to the event. The reverse is true in admiration from a young Greeter toward another trooper with Stu Hume looking on.

There is the exchange of small talk and individual expressions of thankfulness that they safely, have arrived back on American soil. Talk turns to the future and what's "down the road."

Now is the time for a formal ceremony prior to re-boarding the plane. The troops line up.

The colors are presented and the Star Spangled Banner is sung. The award of the inscribed sweatshirt, similar to the one given to President George W. Bush, is presented.

A final thank you and appreciation from both the commanding officer and Greeter chairman Ed Johnson are exchanged. The troops are eager to get going.

Long time Greeter 92 year old Lt. Col. C. E.(Mac) McLean, a 1941 graduate of the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, praises the men and women for their service and sacrifice and offers a few "pearls of wisdom."  Capt. Ed Johnson looks on.

Many celebrities show up to offer their personal greetings. Russ Francis, New England Patriot and All Star tight end, a three tim Pro-Bowl participant, was often seen as a greeter prior to his move to California. Political dignitaries are there for photo-ops. All in all, it’s a celebration.

The lineup for boarding the plane forms and they exit onto the tarmac.

Upon leaving, each warrior is given a star, cut out from a discarded flag, and accompanied with the appropriate saying, "You are not forgotten."

The star and saying shown here are placed into a plastic packet.

Lt. Col Mack McLean, USMC aviator mentioned above flew U.S. Marine Corsairs off of aircraft carriers during World War II and commanded and flew with the Checkerboard Squadron in Korea providing close air support.

The final activity is being a member of the Fence Force Greeters. There is a gathering along the fence to watch the plane begin the journey. Flags are mounted to the fence and one large one on atop a long mast. It is waved back and forth signaling a good bye and have a safe trip. The pilots stop their taxi and blink all their lights returning the Fence Force Salute. The troops line the windows to also share in the greetings. Take note of the excellent view in this photograph. It was taken by the pilot of a departing plane. See a very moving video of the Fence Force in action here

Daytime flights see this view

For middle of the night flights, powered units illuminate the flags so they are visible.

The Fence Force Greeters in action

Here is a photograph of a photograph that hangs in the Hall of Flags. Beloved greetings are expressed by young Maggie Mae Cove Hamel, age 5, with eighty-nine year old Anna Labrie.


Three first time greeters

Chuck Cove greets another first time greeter

A Boy Scout Cub Pack from Somersworth

The Portsmouth High School Clipper Hockey Team

"Nam Knights" waiting for the privilege of honor guard duty

Presenting the colors at the ceremony

Filing into the terminal

and ready to face the gauntlet

Margo Reola, Miss University, attends UNH

and sharing emotions and stories

Getting the greeting from "Denise the Hugger."

cooling it with a tasty dessert served by Kim

Click on the image or caption ONCE enlarge this AWESOME IMAGE, and AGAIN on the IMAGE to enlarge further.


January, 2010