By Sean Kimmons, Army News ServiceSeptember 10, 2018
PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- A lone veteran stood in a quiet airport hallway and extended his hand to thank a Soldier heading off to combat. He continued the simple but grateful gesture to hundreds of others who passed by him during their short layover here.
As the hallway opened up to a waiting room, the cluster of Soldiers, government civilians and contractors -- coming off a military-chartered jetliner headed to Southwest Asia from Fort Bliss, Texas -- were suddenly engulfed by dozens of other cheerful volunteers.
The greeters, as young as schoolchildren to World War II veterans, had come out to give the deploying personnel what they called a proper send-off.
For retired Sgt. 1st Class Pete Tiews, a Vietnam War-era Soldier, the mission of the group, called the Pease Greeters, is a personal one to him.
"I saw many of my friends come back from Vietnam and get tomatoes, eggs and urine balloons thrown at them," he said. "We have to show respect and honor to these people who are going over to fight the battle and keep us free."
Since 2005, the group has greeted more than 1,500 flights full of hundreds of thousands of troops deploying or redeploying downrange.
Tiews estimates he has seen the majority of those flights and it never gets old when the lines of Soldiers walk off the plane.
"You meet some people you've talked to before, but they're basically all new," he said. "And if they did come before, maybe you didn't talk to them then and now you can."
On Friday evening, as in numerous other times, a seemingly endless supply of snacks, drinks, and most importantly, gratitude, were handed out for free.
The waiting room radiated a strong sense of patriotism. A humble color guard of three elderly veterans marched in front of the new arrivals. The crowd then joined together to sing patriotic songs while embroidered stars cut out from old U.S. flags were offered to Soldiers -- a tangible reminder of what they fight for.
During the ceremony, Maj. Michelle Graham, a dentist with the Army Reserve's 810th Medical Company in North Carolina, was given a sweatshirt signed by the volunteers.
On behalf of her fellow travelers, Graham, who was on her way to her first deployment to Kuwait, addressed the greeters.
"We are definitely feeling your love, your honor and your respect," she said. "For some of us, this is our very first deployment. Some of us are seasoned deployers. We're all from different walks of life, but we're all dedicated to supporting the mission of the United States Army and it's an honor to serve.
"Thank you so much for everything you've done for us and keep doing it for those who come behind us."
Patty Demeule, known as "The Patch Lady," also made her rounds chatting with Soldiers who admired her collection of Army unit patches she had received in previous visits.
"The troops do their jobs and the only way they can keep doing that and not feel defeated is to have people behind them 100 percent," she said.
Coming from a military family, Demeule said her grandfather gave her the choice to either serve or actively support the military.
"I choose to support and that's what I've been doing pretty much my whole life," she said.
Staff Sgt. Jordan Mangum shared some laughs with Demeule during the layover, a nice reprieve along his journey to Iraq, which typically takes a few days since troops have to wait for flights in Kuwait.
It was the first time Mangum, an Army Reserve Soldier with the 321st Expeditionary Military Intelligence Battalion, had seen the greeters. The experience, he said, was a welcomed distraction that does not happen as often nowadays.
"I think in today's society we kind of transitioned to most people have forgotten about the war, or at least it is no longer in the news," said Mangum, a senior intelligence sergeant. "So, it's nice to see a small town that really gets behind the troops and support them."
He also appreciated meeting veterans from different eras, including World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam War and the first Gulf War, as well as other people who spent their free time to see them.
"It's amazing when we collectively come together as a whole [to support something]," he said. "That's America to me."