Six New Hampshire volunteers committed to making sure deployed troops get the sendoffs and homecomings yesterday found themselves on the receiving end of the thanks they regularly extend -- from the commander in chief himself and others on Capitol Hill and in the Pentagon.
Six "Pease Greeters" are spending their second day in the nation's capital after getting honored for their work yesterday by President Bush in the White House Oval Office, New Hampshire Sen. John Sununu on Capitol Hill, and defense officials at the Pentagon.
The president offered personal thanks to the Pease Greeters, who shower deploying and redeploying soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines with applause, handshakes and snacks as their aircraft refuel at Portsmouth International Airport at Pease, in New Hampshire. "He thanked us for what we are doing and told us that it's important for Americans like us to show appreciation to and support the troops," said Edmund Johnson, a Korean War veteran who co-chairs the group. "It was a tremendous honor for all of us!"
The greeters started almost three years ago as a band of veterans from the Marine Corps League of New Hampshire who met incoming flights from overseas. Since then, their numbers have swelled into the hundreds, and the Pease Greeters haven't missed a single inbound or outbound flight, Johnson said.
As many as 200 greeters gather to provide boisterous heroes' welcomes to returning troops and encouragement to those headed overseas.
The greeters range from young schoolchildren to feisty, 87-year-old Anna Labrie, many driving as much as 100 miles to greet flights any hour of the day or night, Johnson said. They assemble within an hour's notice, hoisting banners, snapping photos and offering hugs along with coffee, pizza or treats baked by the group's "cookie lady," Kelly Eaton.
Just before the troops reboard their aircraft, group chaplain Hank Page offers a prayer for their protection. "I feel I have to do this. It's a duty," said Page, a Korean War veteran. At 73, Page said he's too old to fight himself, but young enough to offer any support he can to those going off to war. "Being able to say a prayer for these guys is so humbling," he said. "It's a very emotional experience."
Page bristles when he thinks back to the reception troops received when they returned home from Vietnam. "While there's breath in my body, that's not going to happen -- not at Pease, anyway," he said.
Al Weston, maintenance manager at the airport, said he "got hooked" on greeting troops the first time he volunteered to help. "You get caught up in it all, seeing (the Pease Greeters) in their bright, red suits clapping and cheering," he said. "When (troops) walk away from here, they know that people care."
Just before troops leave, the Peace Greeters render a sharp salute, recognizing those they say are continuing the tradition of military service. "We talk about warriors as a brotherhood," Johnson said. "We tell them that we're the old warriors, supporting them, the new warriors, and offer them our salute in recognition of what they're doing for our country."
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
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