BANGOR, Maine — Like many of the local men and women who volunteer as troop greeters at Bangor International Airport, Chuck Knowlen is inspired to greet flights because of the experience he had when he returned from his U.S. Army service in Vietnam.
“When the Vietnam veterans came home, everybody called them losers,” he said Monday morning during an interview with a group of students from Westbrook.
“They had a very poor welcome home when they came back, and one of the reasons I do this is because I want these guys to realize somebody appreciates what they do.”
Susie Auger, a 17-year-old from Westbrook, looked up from the paper on which she was diligently taking notes.
“Why did they call you losers?” she asked, setting aside for a moment the list of interview questions she and the other students were to ask, and launching Knowlen into an impromptu lesson in American history.
Nine students, some from Westbrook High School and others from Fred C. Wescott Junior High School in Westbrook, traveled to the airport Monday to interview members of the Maine Troop Greeters group for the students’ Veterans Day project. Four teachers, including Hermon native Natalie Bell, accompanied the group.
Bell was moved to organize the trip when she recalled greeting troops with her own family several years ago, and thought meeting the troop greeters would be a valuable experience for her students, despite the nearly three-hour drive one way from the Portland suburbs.
“These kids just think of Veterans Day as no classes, no homework, sleep in,” she said. “We felt like it was a lost day for them and so we took it upon ourselves to figure out, well, what does Veterans Day mean. Then I thought about the troop greeters and realized, we should do this.”
Once the students are back at school in the next few days, Bell said it will be up to them to teach the teachers what they learned. The lessons fall into the subjects of history, life skills and math, because the students will do demographic work based on some of their questions to the troop greeters they interviewed.
Each student had a list of questions they were supposed to ask the troop greeters, who through Monday had greeted 4,573 flights and 928,293 troops since 2003, including 252 troops who arrived at the airport at 6 a.m. Monday.
Knowlen told the students their trip was notable not only because of Veterans Day on Wednesday, but also because Monday was the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“We appreciate you all coming here because it means a lot for several reasons,” Knowlen said. “Some of you may not realize it, but this is the day the wall came down between East and West Germany, and if you don’t think that’s a significant thing, you don’t know history, and that’s one thing you need to learn about.”
The students also saw a collection of commemorative coins and patches soldiers have given to the troop greeters over the years, and heard about the cell phones provided free of charge to troops for calls to their families.
On Thursday Bell plans to show her students the documentary film “The Way We Get By,” which is about three local senior citizens who are active as troop greeters. The film is making its national television debut at 9 p.m. Wednesday on PBS, but Bell ordered a DVD of the movie several days ago.
“I think they’re kind and they care so much about the people that are coming in,” Auger said of the troop greeters she met Monday. “Most of them have been in that situation and haven’t been greeted and all that, so I thought it was pretty cool.”