BANGOR, Maine — Waving flags, cheering and shaking hands, the Maine Troop Greeters at Bangor International Airport hailed the 1 millionth service member to disembark at the airport shortly before 1 a.m., Monday.
The flight carrying the 1 millionth soldier to come through the Queen City was one of several originating from Fort Carson, Colo., carrying soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division, 3rd Brigade Combat Team.
The soldiers at the airport Sunday morning were part of that group of “Iron Strong” warriors who are destined for the wars in the Middle East.
The Maine Troop Greeters come to the airport from all over eastern Maine, day or night, to provide warm welcomes or supportive sendoffs to those who serve the United States in all branches of the military.
Many troop greeters at the airport Sunday morning said reaching the 1 million soldier milestone was something they hoped would never happen, but they will remain at their posts supporting the country’s soldiers for as long as necessary.
“We’re the mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and neighbors of these troops who can’t be here,” Tom Kohl, a Vietnam veteran and chairman of the Maine Troop Greeters, said while standing in the airport Sunday morning surrounded by soldiers. “We feel honored.”
The troop greeters began counting the servicemen and women who fly through BIA in 2003.
At 7:45 a.m. Sunday, the official count had reached 999,910, 90 troops short of the historic benchmark. The constantly increasing number is written on a dry erase board in the back of the troop greeters’ room at BIA.
Marking the arrival of the 1 millionth soldier comes on the heels of the seventh anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq on Saturday. Welcoming men and women returning from war and sending them off to foreign war zones is “tough duty,” said troop greeter Joe Savoy of Bangor, but it’s also rewarding.
Officially there are more than 300 troop greeters, but “we have a core of 50 or 60 that we can rely on to greet troops and another 20 or so” who show up for every flight they can, Kohl said.
Many but not all of the troop greeters are military veterans or spouses of veterans, he said.
Darrell McTigue of Dedham said he wasn’t impressed with how Vietnam veterans were treated when they returned to the United States. As a troop greeter, he said he can give soldiers the welcome or the supportive sendoff they deserve.
McTigue and Savoy and others were categorizing memorabilia on Saturday in the greeter’s room, which is filled with military items from soldiers, including more than 3,500 unit coins, patches, photos, certificates and flags and catalogs of the more than 5,000 soldiers who have died in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.
In the back of the room are 41 donated cell phones with unlimited minutes that soldiers may use to call home.
The families of soldiers “don’t mind at all getting woken up at 4 a.m. to hear a loved one is home safe,” Kohl said.
William “Bill” Knight, a World War II veteran from Bradford, is a founder of the group. He and Everett Steele of Brooksville, who has since died, greeted troops during Operation Desert Storm. BIA observes the first troop flight as landing on March 8, 1991.
“Back then it was everything coming home,” Knight said on Sunday. “Nothing was going over.”
With the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the troop greeters officially formed and began meeting flights coming and going, he said.
Over the last seven years, “We’ve missed a couple,” Kohl said. “Every once in a while, one sneaks in” but for the most part greeters are on hand for every flight.
When asked how many soldiers Knight has met over the years, he shrugged and answered, “Too many.”
Knight and fellow greeters Jerry Mundy and Joan Gaudet were featured in the documentary film “The Way We Get By,” which was released last year.
When Spc. Tommitrea Minnifee of Dallas, soldier number 500,000, disembarked from the military transport carrying her and the 546th Area Support Medical Company to Iraq in the early morning hours of Aug. 18, 2007, dignitaries, media and spectators welcomed her along with the troop greeters. But little fanfare was planned for Sunday night. The airport will host a celebration to mark the milestone on March 31, Kohl said.
“This is really an accomplishment of the troop greeters,” he said.
Troop greeter Charles “Dusty” Fisher, a veteran who served five years in the Maine Legislature, said greeters ride an emotional roller coaster.
“It’s a wonderful experience,” he said. “There are a lot of good stories, [and] a lot of sad ones, too. That’s the hard part about coming out here.”
Sunday morning, after an announcement that a flight was boarding, the troop greeters lined the hallway leading to the international gate, shaking hands and wishing the troops well.
“We’ll be here when you get back,” troop greeter Cathy Czarnecki said.
Czarnecki joined the group in March 2004, a month after her son, Robin Tribou, was sent to Iraq.
“It was a godsend for me,” she said. “It kept me focused.”
Her son returned a year later unharmed, but by then Czarnecki was addicted to the work.
A specialist in the group from Odessa, Texas, who asked not to be identified, said he has been deployed overseas four times and each time he has come through Bangor.
When Czarnecki heard that she said, “Get the tax papers out — you’re a resident.”
The soldier said the Maine Troop Greeters are legendary for their undying support among his brothers-in-arms.
“It’s an honor to arrive here,” he said. “It’s the first stop in America and is a place to stretch our legs before we go home.
“And to have a taste of America before we go to war” is unforgettable, he said.