They’re small tokens—a homemade hat and an embroidered star from a retired flag—that rest on each passenger seat aboard the chartered flights that carry troops to deployments in Iraq or Afghanistan. They represent a little piece of home that the servicemen and -women get to take with them from a hearty group of New Hampshire volunteers.
The Pease Greeters, formed by a handful of retired Marines and airport workers in 2005, and now numbering more than 2,000, meet planes that stop briefly to refuel at Portsmouth International Airport at Pease before heading overseas. The group also greets flights returning with soldiers from war-torn countries. The greeters are supported by numerous other individuals as well as business, civic and veterans organizations.
Greeters travel from New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont—any time, day or night, and often with little notice—to meet the flights at the airport, formerly a military airfield called Pease Air Force Base. They consider themselves America’s surrogate family, offering the last goodbye or first enthusiastic welcome home for each plane carrying up to 130 men and women in the armed forces.
Expressions of care
JoAnne Schottler, 65, a semiretired bookkeeper from nearby Stratham, N.H., coordinates several of the greeter giveaways, which include handmade hats for outbound troops to wear under their helmets to keep them warm, and stars packaged with a poem reminding soldiers they are not forgotten.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think this program would fly like this,” says the 5-foot-2 dynamo who is generous with hugs for “my soldiers” and fellow greeters. “I get so much satisfaction from the letters I get every day from the troops.”
Schottler also orchestrates a care package program, which she began in her kitchen and has expanded to take over three rooms in a warehouse. The program ships 300 pounds of donated food, personal hygiene and other items weekly to soldiers. She and her husband, Fred, 71, also provide a free CD of photographs from the Pease layover—including the reception, group photo and departure ceremony—to any soldier who desires it.
Framed photos of each of the more than 300 flights that the volunteers have served line the Heroes’ Walk, a hall crowded with cheering greeters as the soldiers enter the terminal. Inside they find tables filled with food and beverages, bathrooms stocked with toiletries and phones to make free calls anywhere in the world. The reception is followed by an often emotional departure ceremony with patriotic music, prayer and salutes from veterans.
Stars and hats abound
When the soldiers return to their seats on the plane, the hats and stars are waiting. Schottler says more than 5,000 hand-knitted or crocheted hats have been distributed since that program began in November 2008 and another 4,000 are in storage. A cadre of 500 knitters, most from New Hampshire, create the hats out of dark, plain tweed or camouflage yarn.
Gail Curran, 55, of Sandown, N.H., knits hats whenever she can. Her son Geoffrey is an Air Force staff sergeant who is serving his fourth tour in Iraq.
“It makes you feel you’re giving back and doing something that will touch them,” Curran says. “I pray for them when I’m knitting and when I attach my name to the hat, I write that there’s a prayer for them in every stitch.”
Schottler says more than 7,000 stars have been distributed since July. She credits volunteers for the success of both programs.
“People tell me they were looking for a way to help the troops but didn’t know how,” she says. “They thank us for giving them a way.”
Pat Remick is a writer in Portsmouth, N.H.