BANGOR, Maine — When it was time to pick this year’s Distinguished Citizen, members of the Katahdin Area Council, Boy Scouts of America, quickly selected the Maine Troop Greeters.
“It was a very easy choice,” Scout executive Gary Savignano said just before the council’s 14th annual Distinguished Citizen Dinner. “They are a group that really exemplifies what service is all about.
“This is a wonderful group,” he said. “They’re there at 2 or 3 in the morning, during the dead of winter, to welcome troops. Very selfless.”
Around 30 Maine Troop Greeters, local and state dignitaries, and family and friends gathered at the 300-plus-seat dinner at the Bangor Civic Center.
The Maine Troop Greeters’ mission is simple: to greet every serviceman or servicewoman who travels through Bangor International Airport.
“Day or night, rain or shine, it is our commitment to welcome each troop home from war and give a proper send off to each of the young men and women heading overseas,” the group’s mission says.
And they have.
Since beginning to greet flights in May 2003, the troop greeters have met 4,579 flights that carried 927,883 troops, according to figures given Wednesday night.
Tom Kohl, chairman of the Maine Troop Greeters, said that another flight was scheduled to arrive at BIA shortly after 8 Wednesday evening — so that number will increase immediately, he said.
“Many of the greeters are humbled by all this,” he said. “We recognize the troops — that’s what it’s all about.”
In the crowd of troop greeters Wednesday was Kay Lebowitz, a former legislator and Bangor resident, who hugs the troops as they come and go, and William “Bill” Knight, a World War II veteran who is a featured character in the documentary film “The Way We Get By.” Greeters Jerry Mundy and Joan Gaudet also are featured in the movie, which was placed on each table during the dinner.
Troop Greeter Charles “Dusty” Fisher, a veteran who served five years in the Maine Legislature, said he would be sneaking out of the dinner to head to the airport at 8 p.m.
“I will be there,” he said. “We’re all pretty grateful for the guys in uniform. I haven’t met one yet I wouldn’t take home to dinner.”
To be recognized by the Scouts is truly a privilege, he said, then added: “It’s an honor to stand with these guys,” pointing to his fellow greeters.
Troop Greeter Richard “Dick” Gifford of Brewer, who served in the Army during the Korean War and in Vietnam, said he was a Cub Scout but never a Boy Scout.
He said the main reason he is a troop greeter is to give the soldiers of today the greeting he never got when he returned from Vietnam.
“There were people at the airport but they were not greeters, they were there to harass us,” Gifford said. He was told to change into civilian clothing before departing the plane, and he did. “I felt like I was sneaking into my own country. I vowed that that would never happen again” and became a troop greeter.
Major Gen. John “Bill” Libby, adjutant general of the Maine National Guard, said whenever soldiers hear he’s from Maine, they break out in stories about their experiences with the troop greeters.
“I get that everywhere,” he said before the dinner started. “It’s unbelievable.”
U.S. Rep, Mike Michaud, D-2nd Congressional District, echoed Libby’s thoughts during his speech when he recalled traveling to Iraq and Afghanistan to visit with troops. When soldiers learned he was from Maine, Michaud said, “every one of them put a big smile on their face and then talked about the troop greeters.”
A simple handshake, a smile and a thank you are immeasurable, Libby said.
“That’s how important the work of the troop greeters is,” he said.
Libby was the keynote speaker, and during his speech he spoke to the Boy Scouts about service and about honoring all veterans, those who survived and those who were lost in battle and those currently serving.
Through a video presentation, former President Bill Clinton and William Cohen, former senator from Maine and a former U.S. secretary of defense, also addressed the crowd.
The Maine State Honor Guard, which included three members of the 101st Air Refueling Wing of the Maine Air National Guard and a retired Army officer, joined by the Katahdin Area Council Honor Guard, composed of area Boy Scouts, started the dinner by placing the U.S. and other flags on stage.
The Rev. Bob Carlson, who hosted the dinner, said the Maine Troop Greeters provide a “unique, profound and powerful service to the men and women who serve in the armed forces.”
For their labors of love, they earned the title of Katahdin Boy Scouts’ Distinguished Citizens, he said.