Campus Currents

Home Team
When U.S. soldiers return from duty, UNH athletes welcome them back.

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UNH football players welcome home soldiers
Mike Ross/UNH Photographic Services
WARM WELCOME: Football players, from left, Chris Setian ’14, Bilal Colbert ’14, and Chris Houston ’14 show signs of support as they greet troops returning from overseas. (Dan Riley ’16 is in background.)

Army Maj. Holly Bennett and her fellow soldiers expected to see a crowd waiting for them when they returned home to the United States from Afghanistan and Iraq, but they were completely unprepared for the welcome they received at the Portsmouth International Airport at Pease.

When the troops walked through the doors and into the lobby, dozens of UNH athletes—members of the football and volleyball teams—broke into cheers and raucous applause. The Wildcats whistled and shook hands, offered fist bumps and pats on the back. "Welcome home!" they shouted and "Thank you!"

Some of the 100 men and women returning from the Middle East wiped away tears as they filed past the students, who lined the corridor and clapped until the last soldier had passed. "I can't believe college athletes would come out to welcome us," an Army officer said, as he took pictures of the students with his cellphone. A few football and volleyball players blinked back their own tears as the troops thanked them, again and again, for coming.

UNH volleyball players welcome home soldiers
Mike Ross/UNH Photographic Services
HAPPY RETURNS: Volleyball players Abbey Brinkman ’16, center, and Cassidy Croci ’16 greet soldiers returning from overseas.

"It was overwhelming," says Bennett, who was on her way home to Indianapolis. "This is something I will remember for the rest of my life." The UNH athletes aren't likely to forget either. They met soldiers their own age. They met mothers and fathers who had missed holidays and birthdays, who had given up time with their children in order to serve their country. "I got chills when they walked by," says Wildcat football player Nick Cefalo '15. "It was good to see them come back safe."

The student volunteers joined more than 200 "Pease Greeters," a group of veterans and civilians who have welcomed or seen off more than 100,000 troops since 2005. "They sacrifice so much for us," says Chris Zarkoski '12, a former football team captain, who first joined the greeters on his own. "You see soldiers who are 18 and 19 years old risking everything, and we're back here living the good life. It's the least we can do." Thanks to Zarkoski's example, several of UNH's 18 varsity sports teams now participate in the welcome effort during the spring, summer, and fall.

The greeter program is just one of many volunteer projects that connect UNH athletes to the world beyond campus. Over the past two years, teams have collected more than 2,500 "gently used" shoes and sneakers for Soles4Souls, a nonprofit that has delivered more than 17 million pairs of shoes to people in 127 countries. Athletes have also donated time to local food and toy drives, and have worked with Habitat for Humanity during spring break to build homes in New Orleans and Florida.

UNH football players welcome home soldiers
Mike Ross/UNH Photographic Services

"These students are given a lot—they're receiving an education and playing a sport they love," says Cathy Coakley, UNH student-athlete development coordinator. "We try to teach them that they need to acknowledge their opportunities and give back to their community."

At the airport, students saw—and heard—how much their efforts were appreciated. Soldiers shared stories about their families and said how grateful they were for the enthusiastic welcome. "I didn't expect the day to be so dramatic and emotional," says volleyball player Maggie Kenney '16. "It was incredible to meet these men and women and put a smile on their faces. I'd do this a thousand more times."

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