Greeters’ red-carpet evening

Posted April 12, 2009, at 9:38 p.m.

Last year, when we began telling our military friends about our transfer to Bangor, Maine, their first response was something like, “Isn’t that where veterans welcome troops coming through the airport?”

Some of our friends, in fact, had been greeted there themselves. For all of our friends in general, military or civilian, the troop greeters of the Bangor International Airport were the most readily identified landmark, if you will, of our new duty station, second only to Bangor being the home of Stephen King. But for our military friends in particular — spread far across the world, from Japan to Germany to Puerto Rico — it was always the troop greeters they mentioned first when trying to place Bangor, Maine, on their mental map.

For a town not especially known for its military presence (as compared with places like San Diego and Norfolk, Va.), Bangor is part of the military community’s vernacular because of the men and women, many of them veterans themselves, who make it their lives’ work to stand in a line and greet all the troops who pass through BIA. The airport is usually the last refueling stop for flights leaving the country and the first one for flights returning from abroad, making the landscaping outside BIA the first spot of American soil troops walk across after a year or more in Iraq. (Ironically, the landscaping is often covered in snow, as opposed to the desert to which the troops have grown accustomed.)

While we were still in Florida awaiting our transfer, I began researching the troop greeters on the Internet and immediately came across a man named Aron Gaudet. At the time, Aron was wrapping up a project he’d been working on for nearly four years, documenting the troop greeters in a film called “The Way We Get By.” Aron and I exchanged e-mails, and he shared with me a clip from his movie. Sure, I thought, the troop greeters are great and all, and they have certainly made an impact on the global military community, but will it be interesting to watch a documentary about them?

I watched the clip, which was only a few minutes long, then sat back in my desk chair and stared out the window for a good long time. I was overcome with emotion. I wanted to see more, but I’d have to wait; the movie wouldn’t be released for another six months. I posted the trailer on my Web site, and people began to comment. They also wanted to see more.

Last week I finally had that chance at a special premiere of “The Way We Get By” at the University of Maine in Orono. A red carpet was placed outside the entrance to the theater and flanked by two rows of ROTC students from the university and members of the Air National Guard in uniform. When the troop greeters arrived, they walked up the red carpet, and after nearly six years of greeting almost a million service men and women, the troop greeters were welcomed and saluted by the rows of soldiers. A military band played in the lobby while a who’s-who list of city and state officials mingled with dozens of service members in uniform.

For me, it was familiar and comforting to be around all things military again. I’ve grown up around this stuff — military bands, uniforms, salutes, etc. — but for some, the premiere was a rare treat offering a glimpse at the pomp and circumstance of the United States Military. On our way into the theater, in fact, a young college student looked at my husband in uniform, giggled and said, “What’s going on in there tonight?”

This call to awareness is part of what the troop greeters do. Through their commitment to each soldier who passes through BIA the greeters bring attention to the military as a whole. In this way, it was entirely fitting that the premiere for “The Way We Get By” didn’t happen in a large military city like Norfolk, but in a city and on a college campus where the line of saluting soldiers wasn’t an everyday event easily overlooked. The troop greeters aren’t known for welcoming service members in a city like Norfolk. They are known for surprising the troops where they least expect it, during their brief stop at a place called Bangor, Maine.

There was a reception outside the theater with Gov. John Baldacci, then we were ushered inside for the first look at “The Way We Get By” on the big screen. My review of the movie will be next week’s column. Until then, you can watch the trailer at www.thewaywegetbymovie.com.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. Sarah Smiley’s new book “I’m Just Saying …” is available at bookstores. She may be reached at Sarah at sarah@sarahsmiley.com.

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