FIRST PERSON |There is a tradition in Bangor, Maine. It is a ritual of honor observed by a precious and dedicated group of men and women who make the sporadic pilgrimage to Bangor International Airport "no matter the hour" to welcome our troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan. They are the Maine Troop Greeters.
I learned about the Maine Troop Greeters the day my husband and I flew into Bangor for a business trip. As it is my own custom to shake the hand of any military member I see in public, be it at an airport or crossing a grocery store parking lot, I was awestruck by the number of troops I saw clustered in the small terminal when we arrived.
"It will take you an hour to shake all those hands," my husband teased, knowing full well I was tempted to give it a try.
"You just missed it," said our host, business partner and proud Maine native Mike Dugay. He pointed to a small but brightly lit room just to the right of the international arrivals gate. Above the door is a lit sign: "Maine Troop Greeters." Inside was a cluster of camouflage-suited bodies mingled with a handful of vets from wars past.
"They greet every plane," Mike told us. "They line up, applaud and shake every hand." He said it reminded him of the famed Budweiser commercial where spontaneous applause breaks out as a plane-load of troops enters the terminal. "It still makes me cry when I see it."
I learned Harold Clossey, executive director of the Sunrise Economic Council, who is advising our group in our business matters, would be greeting his son Zane through that very gate the next morning.
I had to return. I had to be a part of this.
My husband and I took a break from our business matters and returned to the airport Thursday at 8 a.m. As we rode the escalator to the second floor, we were joined by another man. "Is this the way to where they greet the troops?" I asked.
"Oh yes," he said with a cheerfulness rare to find at that hour in the morning. "I'm one of the Greeters. Just follow me!"
Larry Bridgham is a glorious man with an irresistibly welcoming spirit. As a World War II Air Force veteran who served his country for four years as part of the Air Train Command, today Larry spends his days greeting troops home from the new wars. On this day, Larry would be greeting two plane-loads totaling over 500 troops returning from Iraq. Larry has been welcoming each troop home with a personal handshake and a heartfelt thank-you for a year more than he served in the military himself.
"I believe we should give our troops an honorable welcome home," Larry said, recalling the abhorrent treatment of those who returned from the war in Vietnam. "They put it on the line for us and we owe them that."
Larry has an infectious patriotism; without provocation, he became my personal tour guide, escorting me through the Troop Greeters room and explaining everything on display.
On the counter to the immediate right is a registry where the troops who pass through sign their names and write a brief note of thanks to the greeters. Next to that is a small T-shirt also signed with personal messages of hope. When it is full, the T-shirts are donated to the local children's hospital.
The entire right wall is lined with glass cases filled with pins donated by the troops; the acoustic ceiling tiles above are clustered with unit patches torn personally from the uniforms of the troops and handed to the greeters as a symbol of their gratitude.
There are hats, caps and helmets, all from the troops who have passed through Bangor -- and there are flags, enshrined in the familiar triangular shaped glass cases. Like the troops, these flags saw war and lived to return home.
There is a table of snacks donated to fill the tummies of the hungry and every one of them is offered access to a donated cellphone loaded with free, pre-paid minutes to call loved ones.
Larry hustled me over to the "library," a few shelves of books and ring-binders that tell the history of the Greeters and what they have done over the years. Larry's favorite part of the collection is the binder of thank-you letters, sent to them from military leaders and members of Congress expressing gratitude for their efforts.
"If we ever get to close this place," Larry said wistfully, "if they ever don't need us to do this anymore, this is the one thing I would want to take with me when they close the door for the last time."
I met Bill Dean, who served in Vietnam (1954-1957). Today he is determined that our troops are welcomed home with gratitude and honor.
"It just wasn't right," Bill recalled of the disgraceful way he and his fellow troops were greeted upon their return. But he acknowledged that the social perception of our men and women in the military has changed. "It took 9-11 to wake this country up."
Jodie Rand was there to greet her son, Zachary, an Army captain returning from his second tour in Iraq. With her was her daughter, Brielle, and her sister, Jacki Murray.
"I just want to hug him and kiss him," Jodie said anxiously, her face utterly beaming with joyous anticipation.
"Most of the troops don't have family who can get here to greet them," Jacki said. "It's great what they [the Maine Troop Greeters] do for them."
Dusty Fisher was there too. He served in the Army, an E4 radar specialist in the 31st Artillery, a job referred to among his fellow troops as a "Scope Dope."
"It's what we do," Dusty said. "I know where they're 'coming from,' so I want to be here when they get back."
Seated alone in the first chair to the left of the arrival gate was an anxious-looking man. In the chair next to him was a green gift bag decorated with bald eagles and American flag stickers. A pair of small flags were sticking out of the tissue wrapped contents. He kept looking at it, fussing with it as if adjusting the clothes on his child. Then he'd sit back, still scrutinizing its appearance while clasping his capped, Styrofoam cup of coffee in his hands like a prayer.
"Are you here to meet someone special?" I asked. His answer caught in his throat and his tears came immediately.
"My daughter," he managed.
Bob Smagula served in the Army, sergeant first class. He retired in 1985.
"The reception we got," he recalled sadly, and for a moment his voice trailed off to bad memories. But he shook them away. Lessons learned are more important than lessons lost.
"What they do here is fantastic," Bob chose to say instead. "It's such a turnaround this country has made."
His daughter, Lotta -- a master sergeant in the Army -- had no idea he was there. He hadn't seen her for a year. Now, in a matter of minutes, she would be walking down the entry tunnel.
He looked back at the gift bag, showing me the contents as if they were Lotta's baby photos. The thing of which he was most proud was a margarita glass full of lime-green margarita-flavored Jelly-Bellies. They are her favorite.
"I couldn't find any in New Hampshire," Bob laughed. "But I found them here in Maine!"
Due to mechanical difficulties the flight was delayed twice, held over in Ireland for two days. It was now scheduled to arrive at 8:38 a.m. Bob had driven four hours from Manchester, N.H., to be there.
It wasn't until then that I learned Bangor is only a layover stop. From there the troops would be flown to Fort Hood, Texas, for debriefing. Bob would only get to see his daughter for one hour.
"I don't care if I only got to see her for 10 minutes," Bob said proudly. "I'd be here."
Our business associate, Harold Clossey, was there. He stood nervously with his daughter, Jena, and her boyfriend, Devon. Harold couldn't sit. He paced anxiously, grinning. Devon sat next to Jena, his arm around her. She sat, legs crossed, staring down the empty arrival tunnel. Her dangled foot was fluttering as fast as a hummingbird wing.
An anxious chatter stirred through the gathering. The greeters were 30-some strong now, comprising locals, family members, official Maine Troop Greeters and me and my husband, who were blessed to be there from Florida.
"They're here," someone said. "They're on the ground!"
Then, as they have done for 15 years, the group began lining up at the international arrivals gate. My husband and I joined them, and we waited. My heart pounded. I was already crying.
"It's like waiting for him to be born all over again," Harold exclaimed. He was about to burst with excitement. Jena was literally vibrating with eagerness.
As the first soldier was sighted, the applause began.
"Welcome home," one greeter shouted, shaking the hand of the first soldier and then the next and the 341 who came after.
And it was just as Mike had said -- it was just like the commercial, all the way down to the looks on the faces of the soldiers, the surprise, the humble smiles, the wonder that all of this fuss was about them. But this was real -- and I was there, bearing witness to one of the most profound moments I have ever known.
"Thank you!" I said reflexively, reaching my hand to the first troop who neared me. "Welcome home."
"Thank you," said a local man.
A mother and her young daughter were across from me reaching for other hands, thanking them one and all.
I have never grasped the hands of so many heroes. To be thanked by them was awkward.
Tears were flowing freely from the eyes of the greeters as each soldier walked the line. One huge soldier came down the chute. He looked like a tank with legs. He saw the little girl who came with her mom to greet the troops; as he approached, he smiled and ripped his unit patch from the shoulder of his uniform. He stopped in front of the child and bent down low, smiling as he handed her the patch. She hugged him, smiling, grinning. She held the patch as if it were an autograph from her most favorite Disney Channel star.
Bob Smagula was to the child's left. He was holding his camera in front of his face and making his way into the flow of soldiers, sending the current slightly off course for a moment. He had spotted his daughter, and he made his way toward her. She didn't recognize him at first. She even tried to go around him until he lowered his camera to reveal his face.
It took her a moment. The look on her face was priceless, their embrace inspirational.
The terminal now swarmed with troops. Some sat exhausted in chairs. Others chatted with the Greeters. Most had one of the donated cell phones clasped to their ears.
"Excuse me," came a voice from nearby. "Excuse me, ma'am."
It was a young soldier. His name is Ken Hamel, and he wanted to know if I could tell him where he could find "the ladies who give the pennies away."
"The pennies?" I asked. Then Ken reached into the pocket of his uniform and pulled out a small Zip-Lock bag he had received from the Freeport Flag Ladies when he was deployed a year ago. Inside was a penny.
"They said it was a lucky penny and I wanted to give it back," the soldier said humbly. "This one worked for me."
Incredible; this young man had just spent the past year risking his life in the defense of others and the first thing he wanted to do upon his return was to give back a penny someone had given him before he left so it might bring luck to someone else. Their extreme patriotism and sense of humility is mind-boggling.
Jodie, Brielle and Jacki greeted Zachary. Harold, Jena and Devon greeted Zane. The local supporters as well as my husband and I greeted the rest. The Maine Troop Greeters have welcomed them all -- over 1.5 million of them by the time they closed the greeters room that day.
"Day or night, rain or shine," the website states of their purpose, "it is our commitment to welcome each troop home from war and give a proper send-off to each of the young men and women heading overseas."
They do that with a sense of commitment that is difficult to match.
These men and women; these wonderful, selfless, exquisite people are an amazing gift, not just to the troops but to us all. They are the sentinels, the ones who keep watch while we sleep and they welcome home for us those who stand in our defense from far away.
Years after risking their own lives for their country, in spite of the way they were treated when they returned, they now spend their days dedicated to serving those who lay their lives upon the altar to bear the freedom torch of today.
Visit their website. Thank them. Give them the gratitude they deserve not only for what they do today but to make right what they were denied when they returned home so many years ago. It is time we paid homage to these brave souls. In spite of it all, they never stopped serving you.
Before we left, Larry -- my tour guide -- found me. He wanted to say goodbye and thank me for coming to help them welcome our troops home.
"I have something for you," he said, handing me a small, clear plastic envelope. Inside was a minted, enameled coin. On one side, on a back-drop of the stars and stripes, is a pair of hands locked in an eternal handshake surrounded by the emblems of each branch of the military. On the other side is the state seal encircled by the words "Maine Troop Greeters -- Bangor Int'l Airport."
"We all have them," he explained, "me and the other Greeters. We only give them to people we think would understand their meaning and I definitely think you understand." The honor was beyond words.
Upon my return home from Maine I had a chance to speak with Tom Kohl by phone. Not only is he the chairman for the Maine Troop Greeters, he is an amazingly kindhearted man whose passion for his task is evident in the sound of his voice, even from 1,600 miles away.
"We try to keep it upbeat and light," Tom said of the process in greeting the troops. "They are heroes. We talk to them and we listen. Sometimes we even have therapy dogs there."
He said the troops really seem to respond to the dogs, telling the animal known as man's best friend the things they are not yet ready to tell a fellow human. Tom watches sometimes.
"They sit with the dogs and pet them," he said. The interaction is clearly therapeutic. "You can tell it really helps them."
"Some of them [the troops] come home with a lot of baggage," Tom confessed heavily. "It's not always easy hearing what they share with us."
When asked what they need the most to help in their continued efforts, Tom was quick to respond.
"Twinkies are popular," he laughed. "Razor blades, toothbrushes" and other basic toiletry items are also high on the needs list.
"I mean, you can't share a bottle of mouthwash between 40 guys," he chuckled. Feminine products are also in high demand. "A lot of the troops are women, you know."
Of course, a cash donation is always welcomed. "We can always use money to complement what we try to do for them," Tom said.
Kohl also spoke of the items left in the trust of the Maine Troop Greeters; the patches, the pins and the flags. In fact, he said the Maine Troop Greeters are in the process of conducting an inventory and insuring everything with the hope to "change locations" and house these historic and profoundly personal items in their own museum.
"These things are treasures," he insisted, "a public treasure. We need to preserve and protect these things. They need to be available for future generations to see."
Tom asked if I saw the binders in the Greeters room -- the binders full of the names of the fallen. I had. There are three of them. I could not bear to open, let alone touch, even one of them. Against the family members, loved ones and friends who were unable to escape the reality of the contents of those binders, I label myself a coward.
"If you had looked inside" Tom explained, "you would have found some powerful things."
He explained how some of the returning troops will come in, look through the books, and then "they will take out pages;" on the pages bearing the names of lost friends, "they write a private message to them."
Tom told me of one soldier who had brought back the unit patch of a friend who did not come home. He placed it in the book, right next to the entry of his fallen friend's name.
"They need to be commended," Tom said of the troops, stressing several times that the "sacrifices made by the families" of these brave men and women are equally important.
What Tom does not seem to grasp is how important -- how immeasurably profound -- his and the efforts of all the Maine Troop Greeters are in this story. Then again, it is their humility that makes them all the more significant in this powerful equation.
They too deserve your thanks. I welcome you to watch their documentary, "The Way We Get By." Larry tells me it was nominated for an Emmy Award.
If you want to learn more about the Maine Troop Greeters, about how to Become A Volunteer, Become A Partner or Make A Donation, please visit their website. To get an idea of how much this means to our troops, try reading a few of their letters. For more photos, check out "The Amazing Maine Troop Greeters."
If you ever happen to fly through Bangor International Airport in Maine, stop by the Greeters room. If the door is open, the American flag is standing outside the entrance and you see a few Vets wandering about, I strongly suggest that you hang around for a bit. I promise you, something amazing will happen soon.
There is a tradition in Bangor, Maine. It is a ritual of honor observed by a precious and dedicated group of men and women on the second floor of the Bangor International Airport.
To observe their custom will move you; to participate will change you forever.
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