BANGOR, Maine — The saxophone-playing soldier who caught the nation’s attention when he borrowed a local student’s instrument to play “The “Star-Spangled Banner” after returning from the first Gulf war was in town Tuesday heading back to the danger zone.
Master Sgt. Kevin Tillman, who is about 44, was a 26-year-old Army medic when he stepped off the first returning transport plane from Operation Desert Storm on March 8, 1991, at Bangor International Airport.
During that first trip to BIA, Tillman was greeted by a waiting crowd of local well-wishers, including the John Bapst Memorial High School band.
As television cameras rolled, the Kentucky soldier borrowed a tenor sax from one of the students and played a blues rendition of the nation’s anthem that brought tears to the eyes of many in attendance, Bill Knight, a founding member of the Maine Troop Greeters, said Tuesday.
“It just was heartwarming,” he said.
“It stunned us,” John Bapst concert band director Julienne Ewing said of Tillman’s 1991 impromptu concert. “Flags, laughing, crying, hugging — all came to a stop.”
Tillman arrived at BIA at 12:20 a.m. Tuesday for a two-hour fuel layover and left for Iraq just before 3 a.m. There to greet him were approximately 30 Maine Troop Greeters, and Ewing who, along with her family, has become friends with Tillman.
Tillman has returned to Bangor half a dozen times over the past two decades. He played in the spring and summer concerts at John Bapst in 1991, was in town in March 2001 to celebrate the 10-year reunion of those who had been part of the Bangor homecoming festivities, had Thanksgiving at Ewing’s house and attended her son’s wedding.
“He’s part of my family now,” she said.
After the hugging, laughter and tears of happiness shared by Tillman and the Ewing family during the early hours of Tuesday, the Army soldier “grinned from ear to ear and said, ‘I told them on the plane my family would be here to greet me,’” Ewing said. “We were.”
Tillman is scheduled to return to U.S. soil in June 2010, and plans already are in the works to celebrate his second BIA homecoming, Ewing said.
“Upon his return, the possibilities are wide open,” she said.
The Maine Troop Greeters also will be ready to welcome him home for the second time, Knight said.
“We’ll be here when you come back,” is what Knight said he told Tillman as the Army master sergeant prepared to get on the transport plane for the Middle East war zone.