PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — About 30 people stood outside the chain-link fence near the main building of Northern Maine Regional Airport at dusk Saturday, staring intently at the slowly darkening sky.
“Listen! Listen! It’s the plane,” one said suddenly.
A minute passed. No aircraft.
“It’s the water going in the drain,” someone said of the noise.
More minutes ticked by. A faint drone could be heard. Then a light appeared in the purplish sky, then two, both close together high overhead and paralleling the long runway in front of the crowd. The lights were attached to the wings of a small passenger jet that began its final approach as the crowd hurried inside to the airport’s baggage claim area.
Five minutes later, a tall, broad-shouldered man wearing a leather jacket walked through the tarmac entranceway and was greeted by the group with applause, hugs, the strobes of camera flashes and cheers.
Welcome home, Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Dwight Hafford.
A Fort Fairfield native, the 30-year-old U.S. Army serviceman just completed about five months of duty in Kabul, Afghanistan, as a member of the 25th Signal Battalion of the 160th Signal Brigade. A 12-year military veteran, Hafford has served in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait, among other postings, he said Saturday.
The large, warm greeting was arranged thanks to his friends and family, and the Patriot Guard Riders and American Legion Riders groups of Caribou and Madawaska, said Jerry Joles, Aroostook County ride captain for Patriot Guard Riders.
Hafford’s wife, 25-year-old Jessica Hafford, of Montgomery, Ind., said she contacted Joles to arrange the welcome because she wanted to do something special for her husband, to whom she has been married since Sept. 26, 2009.
“He’s very well-loved,” said Hafford’s sister Dani Hafford-Keiser, 31, of Fort Fairfield. “There are so many people here that are so proud of him.”
As part of their volunteer service, the leather-clad American Legion and Patriot Guard Riders typically form motorcycle motorcades and escort servicemen and women to and from transportation centers, but it was too cold for that Saturday, Joles said.
Many of them veterans themselves, the 20 riders formed an honor guard and saluted Hafford. Hafford returned the salute sharply and exchanged handshakes and thanks with each rider.
“The welcome-homes are the happiest,” said Joles, 66, of Presque Isle. “We are happy they are home and safe. The sendoffs are really tough because we know they are going someplace dangerous. The welcomes are the easiest to do because the sadness [isn’t] there.”
“It shook the hell out of me,” Hafford said of the greeting. “I wasn’t really expecting it, but I guess I should have. They’ve done this sort of thing for me before.”
In previous visits home, Hafford family members have greeted him with a limousine and motorcade, Hafford-Keiser said.
Hafford will be home for a few weeks before enrolling in warrant officer’s school at Fort Rucker, Ala., he said.
“He never settles,” Jessica Hafford said of her husband. “He’s always busting his butt.”