By Liz Premo, Atlantic News Staff Writer
Atlantic News, Friday, August 31, 2007
[The following article is courtesy of the Atlantic News]
[Atlantic News Photos by Liz Premo]
PORTSMOUTH -- The Time: A beautiful summer afternoon in August. The Place: The air terminal at Pease Tradeport. The People: Close to 150 or so individuals who gladly and wholeheartedly support America's troops. The Reason: To show those troops exactly how they feel.
Lining both sides of the main corridor of the terminal, this enthusiastic bunch of patriotic Americans is preparing to welcome members of the 777th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron (aka "Dueling Dragons," the "war-zone designation" of the 463rd Airlift Group, US Air Force).
These military heroes — numbering around 100 or so — are coming home to American soil after leaving their base in Balad, an Iraqi town located just north of Baghdad where they have served the past 132 days.
Their journey home has been a long one: Flights from Iraq, to Romania, to Iceland, to New Hampshire, pausing before the final leg of the trip to their airbase in Little Rock, Arkansas.
And there is a very good chance they have no idea of the welcome that awaits them when they go through the frosted double doors after stepping off the aircraft for a short stop-over at Pease.
Meanwhile, on the other side of those doors, the Pease Greeters await, the red, white and blue buttons pinned to their clothing proclaiming their status as such. Many clutch American flags, quietly conversing with one another while keeping close watch for the impending arrival.
A diverse group of people of all ages and interests, professions and economics, the Greeters — military and civilian alike — have one goal: To make their special guests feel welcome, appreciated, honored and refreshed for the short amount of time they're in one another's presence. It is these willing volunteers' own special sort of duty.
Just before the first approaching shadow appears behind the doors, Ed Johnson, Commandant of Seacoast Detachment, Marine Corps League addresses everyone there. This flight — one of more than 110 that the Pease Greeters have welcomed both day and night over the last two years — has a quick turn-around, he announces, and there won't be as much time as usual to interact with the new arrivals.
All hugs and handshakes, Johnson adds with a chuckle, should probably be saved for him because of the time squeeze.
Just a few moments later, the shadows begin to move behind the doors. The moment the portals swing open, the loud cheers and thunderous applause fill the corridor, the flags begin to wave and the greetings begin.
Clad in their khaki Air Force fatigues, the troops at the head of the line are initially caught by surprise, then break into smiles as the handshakes and hugs begin — in spite of Johnson's cautionary directive. But that's OK — it's all well-deserved, well-received and freely given.
The troops continue passing through this uber-friendly gauntlet, getting pats on the back, exchanging handshakes and smiles with the Pease Greeters. A few of them are visibly moved by the reception they are receiving; in fact, it is not unusual to see some tears flow on either side of the receiving line during one of these gatherings.
As the cheers continue, the troops trek down the corridor — rightfully dubbed the "Heroes' Walk" — where they are directed to a room in which they can make phone calls free of charge from a phone bank just to the right of the doorway. A variety of snacks, candies and beverages are there for the taking, served by a contingent of dedicated Pease Greeters who wouldn't miss this moment for the world.
"It's very impressive — a lot of people here," says MSGT Jerry Rotton. Enjoying an ice cold soda and some casual conversation with a couple of his hosts, he explains how his particular unit hauls cargo and personnel by air in order to reduce the number of convoys on the ground. Doing so thwarts any potential attacks by the enemy in this Global War on Terror.
This juncture in MSGT Rotton's military service constitutes his fifth Middle East trip, and he says this is the first time he has received an exuberant greeting like this.
"It's very nice," says the Arkansas native, a married father of three daughters.
And how are thing going in Iraq at the current time? MSGT Rotton says that "there have been a lot of changes" since the surge was put into action, and that "things are not nearly as bad as the first couple of years" of the war. He adds that the Iraqi people "are getting tired of getting blown up [and] they're starting to pitch in" by aiding coalition forces in various ways.
MSGT Rotton has spent 23 years in active duty, and says he will likely be heading back to the Middle East next fall. For now, he is happy to be back in America enjoying his stop in New Hampshire, which he calls "a very beautiful state."
The troops are soon ushered up to another part of the air terminal where they are gathered for a huge group photograph. Johnson introduces them to a number of notable individuals and Veterans in the crowd, as well as a group of Scarlett O'Hatters — members of the Red Hat Society who have sponsored this particular incoming flight. The Lord's Prayer is recited, a military chaplain offers a benediction, and respectful salutes are exchanged.
"We, the old warriors, salute you, the young warriors," the troops are told. "We love you guys."
If there hasn't been a groundswell of emotion up to this point, there most certainly is now.
Still more hugs and handshakes are shared and mementoes (flags, patches, coins) are exchanged as these brave Americans board the plane that will take them home — or, in the case of those being deployed overseas, to the next stop in their military commitment to their country.
And the Pease Greeters, with yet another fulfilling welcome recorded in their hearts and memories, head for home where they will await the next time they are called upon to perform their own special sort of duty.