WASHINGTON — After thousands of hours of waiting in drafty airport halls, more than a million handshakes and four years of filming, three Bangor natives are in the spotlight in the nation’s capital. “The Way We Get By,” a feature-length documentary about the troop greeters at Bangor International Airport, was screened at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday and at Walter Reed Army Medical Center on Thursday.
Joan Gaudet, Bill Knight and Jerry Mundy are three of the 35 or so core group of people, most of whom are retired, who greet and see off every flight carrying troops overseas and every flight bringing them back home. About 200 people, by Mundy’s estimate, have signed up to greet troops.
The three arrived in Washington on Monday and have been carried away on a whirlwind of publicity events ever since.
Gaudet, whose son Aron Gaudet directed the film, said she and her fellow unexpected film stars had been very busy, with not much time for tourism.
“We get up in the morning, and he [Aron] says you’re going to do this, this and this today,” she said.
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, took time out of her day Wednesday to visit with Mundy. She said she was surprised at one of his apparent interests.
“We had Jerry visit with us today, and took him on a tour of the Capitol and took him up to the gallery. I got the feeling he was a C-SPAN watcher, because he recognized a few of the members,” she said.
U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, was also at the Wednesday screening, pushing Mundy in a wheelchair during a private reception before the screening. Michaud, who has greeted troops at the Bangor airport several times, said the troop greeting effort is special to him both personally and legislatively. He is chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee.
“Every time I’ve been over to Iraq and Afghanistan and the soldiers find out I’m from Maine, they always mention the troop greeters and how very pleased they were to see them there,” he said. “It’s such a huge crowd, no matter what time, no matter whether night or day. I don’t think [the troop greeters] can imagine how much it really affects the soldiers.”
“Volunteerism is alive and well with the troop greeters. You can see it,” said Michaud, who said he spotted himself in the background of some of the film’s scenes.
Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, both Maine Republicans, came to the reception before the Capitol screening and posed for pictures with Gaudet, Knight, Mundy, the film’s producer and director and the rest of Maine’s congressional delegation. Snowe left before the screening began, while Collins delivered introductory remarks and stayed to watch the film.
“The first question many of you have is, why Bangor, Maine,” Collins said. “The simple answer is that the city that I’m proud to call home is the location of the easternmost airport in the United States, a former Air Force base that can accommodate trans-Atlantic flights. For our troops, Bangor is either the last American soil they touch upon deployment, or the first they touch upon their return.”
Collins then introduced Jill Biden, the vice president’s wife, who also spoke before the film.
Biden, a Blue Star mother, said that her son Beau had just returned to Delaware that afternoon after a year in Iraq. She said that he told her one of the most emotional experiences of his life was landing in New Hampshire to find 150 people lined up to greet him and his fellow service members. “I will never forget how much that meant to us,” Biden said her son told her.
Some troops, like Beau Biden, come through Portsmouth International Airport at Pease in New Hampshire, where troop greeters are also active.
“And that is what these greeters from Maine mean to our troops as they land on American soil. Joan and Bill and Jerry, you know firsthand what my son Beau was talking about,” Biden said.
For director Aron Gaudet and producer Gita Pullapilly, the film is more than a chronicle of Aron’s mother and the others’ post-retirement lives as troop greeters. It is also a behind-the-scenes romance. Gaudet and Pullapilly were both working as broadcasters at rival stations and they started dating. Gaudet took Pullapilly home to meet his mother, and Pullapilly’s fascination with Joan and the troop greeters planted the seed for what would eventually become their 84-minute labor of love: “The Way We Get By.”
And just as the film’s journey has ended happily — a world premiere and Special Jury Award at the South by Southwest film festival, a shelf full of other awards and honors and now a screening at the U.S. Capitol and limited runs in theaters around the country— Gaudet and Pullapilly’s story will have a happy ending as well. The two will get married in Stockton Springs, Maine, on Oct. 16.
Joan Gaudet, who was born in Bangor said in the film that she was “addicted to” greeting the troops, and was overwhelmed by the response the film had garnered.
“I cry a lot,” she said of how she feels when she sees the film. “I never expected all this.”
Though about half of the small crowd at the invitation-only screening at the Capitol stood when asked who was an active service member or veteran, Gaudet said the screening she was looking forward to most was not the one filled with the black and gray suits of Capitol Hill but Thursday’s at Walter Reed, populated by those wearing medals and uniforms who were wounded in combat.
“I’m excited about this one, but Walter Reed has a warm place in my heart,” Gaudet said. “We see so many of the guys come back. We went there for a really short time a while ago, and they were having a barbecue, and the first table we went to talk to there were two people there that had been through Maine. They came through in 2004, and one of them now has both of his legs gone. And it really brings it home to you then, when you think what they’ve gone through and what they’re going through and what their family’s going through. It makes it mean a lot more when you go to greet the troops. It’s really special.”
Now, on top of being recognized for their tireless volunteerism and empathy, Gaudet, Knight and Mundy are accidental documentary film stars.
“Congratulations, you’re famous now,” Collins said to Mundy before the film.
“I’m not famous,” Mundy replied. “I’m just lucky.”