PORTSMOUTH -- A hand-knit hat and a handshake from a stranger may not seem like much, but the love and gratitude will bring a smile to those who are deploying overseas — and for those who remain at home.
For the 666th time, hundreds of area residents who serve with the Pease Greeters filled Portsmouth International Airport at Pease to ensure the 72 members of the U.S. Air Force 16th Air Lift Squadron, which is stationed at Joint Base Charleston in South Carolina, are remembered as they deployed to Qatar Friday morning.
Crowds lined the halls, handed out American flags and provided comfort items — doughnuts, coffee, cookies, hand-knit hats, stars from retired flags and other keepsakes — to the members of the unit.
Senior Airman Michael Denk, who is deploying for a third time, was impressed by the turnout and the generosity of the people from around the area.
"It wasn't something I expected," Denk said.
Lt. Col. Terry Tyree said the experience was "an absolute pleasure."
"We'll be gone for a while, but we hope to come back here," Tyree said.
As before, the Pease Greeters took a photo of the unit to line the "hall of heroes" in the terminal, presented a signed sweatshirt to the unit's commander — who also received a commemorative buoy and a "challenge coin" — and provided phone cards to help the troops make calls from overseas.
Charles Cove, chairman of the Pease Greeters, said the group started in May of 2005 with 135 members who were asked to be there to give "a proper sendoff" to a unit deploying to Iraq.
Since then, Cove said the group expanded to 4,200 volunteers from around the region and they have met more than 200,000 members of the U.S. Armed Forces as they deploy overseas or return home through Portsmouth International Airport at Pease.
After hearing about their efforts, Cove said, President George Bush invited six Pease Greeters to the White House in 2008 to recognize the organization.
Among those attending was Edmund E. Johnson Jr., 84, of Rye Beach, founder of the Pease Greeters, who died last week. Johnson had remained active in the group since its founding.
"These people are phenomenal — they are the best volunteer organization you can ever work with," Cove said, adding volunteers come to the air terminal to meet flights — whether they are coming or going — "morning, noon and night."
Irma Goodrich, of Stratham, whose husband served during the Korean War, said "it's very important for us to support the troops."
Her daughter, Joan Gough, also of Stratham, said she wants to make sure members of the military know people support them and their efforts are appreciated.
"My husband was in Vietnam, so I'm doing this for him," Gough said.
As many of the Pease Greeters are veterans or family members of those who served since World War II, Cove said the group meets military units from around the country who pass through Pease.
"We'll be happy to be out of the business because all the troops will be home," Cove said.
For more information, go to www.peasegreeters.org.