Bangor's Warm Welcome
In pairs they file through the gate: men, women, black, white, muscular, slight. Their dazed stares, exhausted faces, and limping steps say as much about six hours crammed inside a chartered airliner as, perhaps, seven months of frontline fighting. Most maintain their board-straight military posture even as they make their way through the two rows of applauding and outstretched hands in front of them. A few, including some of the most brawny and intimidating, weep openly. Making their way together down the slightly sloping airport gangway they are a wave of desert fatigue, a wave that has washed ashore in, of all places, Bangor. And Bangor is making damn sure that wave doesn't break.
Virtually every day for the past three years a dedicated group of Mainers has gathered at all hours of the day and night at Bangor International Airport to applaud, welcome, occasionally hug, and say good luck to American sailors, airmen, and foot soldiers. Whether heading off to war in Iraq and Afghanistan or landing on U.S. soil for the first time since the war zone, every military man, woman, and even dog is met by a group of friendly faces. At last count, the greeters had eased the minds of some 330,000 soldiers, with more added daily. Operating out of a converted storefront in the five-gate terminal, the 127 troop greeters consist almost exclusively of fifty- and sixty-something veterans and their wives, most hailing from the Bangor/Brewer area, although a few travel from as far away as Bucksport, Topsham, and Freeport. Most of the men wear ballcaps decorated with military pins, a few adding Marine Corps or navy T-shirts to their impromptu uniform. Many of the wives clutch small U.S. flags, the Stars and Stripes flapping as they clap. Midday flights often have as many as four-dozen greeters lining the airport hallway; nighttime flights usually have at least a dozen or so. Regardless of the hour, one person who can always be found on the receiving line is Bill Knight, the group's eighty-four-year-old leader.
"Who needs sleep?" Knight responds when asked how he finds the stamina required to respond to the troops' ever-changing schedule. Knight is at the top of a complex phone tree activated every time the BIA ground crew informs him that a flight full of troops is in the air and headed to Bangor. Often, that call comes in the wee hours. "I sleep when the troops aren't here," he remarks, matter-of-factly. A sergeant during World War II, Knight owned a farm in Bradford, about a half-hour drive northwest of the airport, but sold it last December so that he could be nearer to BIA. He now lives in a trailer park just four miles away. To listen to the soldiers, Knight's sacrifice is worth it.
"It's nice to see this," says Fabian Molina, a Marine corporal originally from Satanta, Kansas, returning from more than half a year deployed at Al Asad Airfield in Iraq. "It's good to know you have the support."
While many returning soldiers stop in western Europe before heading across the Atlantic to Bangor, all say that the greeting they receive in Bangor helps them realize they're home at last. "It's great to read the American words, to know all the customs," says Marine Corporal Robert Thomas, whose flight landed in Ireland and then Bangor before continuing on to Camp Pendleton, near San Diego. "It's great to be back on American soil, I'll tell you that." Others say the warmth they experience in Bangor is more than they expect even when they return to their own hometown. "I'm from New York, New York, so we never expect this kind of thing," explains Diana Benique, a sergeant whose slight build contrasts sharply with that of her more muscle-bound comrades. "People just usually look the other way."
The troop greeters say fighting that impulse to look away is precisely what draws them to the airport. "This is good therapy," says Arthur Brazeau, a greeter who served as a "tunnel rat" in Vietnam. "It makes me feel good to greet people because the way I was greeted was not so good. I couldn't wait to get my uniform off — I was ashamed of myself." Knight says he and the eighteen others who first started meeting troops during the 1990 Persian Gulf War wanted to make sure that no U.S. troops shared Brazeau's shame. "We thought these guys needed the publicity that they didn't get in Vietnam," Knight explains. "We couldn't do that over, but we sure as hell could make a difference from here on out."
And for at least an hour or so while the troops are in Bangor, the troop greeters are clearly making a difference. Most soldiers start the line with the same formal, military speech patterns and posture that have been ingrained upon them, but almost all have visibly begun relaxing by the time they reach the line's end. More than one will stare back, incredulously, at a decorated war veteran who's just told him: "You guys are our heroes." Some head right into the troop greeters' office to use one of the forty-one free cell phones provided by Unicel and U.S. Cellular, while others make a beeline for the airport lounge. Soon the sound of cold Heineken bottles being clinked mixes with the occasional army chant and the din of greeters chatting with small groups of troops. The mood is relaxed, but the troops' body language — the men stand very close to each other, and more than a few stand arm-in-arm as they finish their beers — reveals that these are men and women who have become close as only comrades in arms can. And though the mood is markedly more sedate when a planeload of troops bound overseas passes through, Knight says the greeters still attempt to boost spirits. "We always tell them we'll be here when they get back," he says. "We always try to put a smile on their faces when they leave."
Rebecca Hupp, director of BIA, says that while the higher number of chartered planes has meant a financial boost for the airport, the troop greeters have done something more important for Bangor and Maine. "I think they have become a symbol in our region for what the community stands for," Hupp says. "They sort of personify the image that we want to convey of Maine as a welcoming place."
As a loudspeaker summons the troops back to their plane, the troop greeters race back into formation to shake the soldiers' hands again and wish them well. This time, a few troops stop to get a quick photograph with one of the greeters. Bill Knight may have been at the airport since 3 a.m., and another flight is probably due to touch down in just a few hours, but he makes sure to keep the line until the last troop is aboard. Despite the unrelenting schedule, Knight, the only original troop greeter left, says he never even thinks about how long he and the other greeters will need to stay on duty at BIA. "When it's over, it's over," he says. "We'll be glad to have it over, and we'll be glad to greet the last plane home. But until that happens, we'll be here."