Even the most cynical among us would be moved to observe the troop greeters at their volunteer duty at Bangor International Airport. Without great fanfare, without calling attention to themselves and without political overtones, these men and women, mostly retired and mostly veterans, extend a warm handshake, and maybe a hug, to the young men and women bound for Iraq and Afghanistan or homeward bound after serving in those countries.
The greeters marked their 1 millionth handshake earlier this week, a milestone that is both sad and yet worthy of pride. It’s sad, the greeters say, because it means that since 2003, many Americans have been sent into harm’s way. But the greeters are justified in feeling proud of the very practical and heartfelt way they support the troops, something that goes beyond a bumper sticker or yellow ribbon magnet.
The 35 or so core group organize themselves so that every flight carrying troops in or out of BIA is greeted, even if those flights come in the wee hours of the morning. They hand the troops a cell phone so they can call loved ones to say one more goodbye, or deliver the “I’m home safe” message.
When the powerful film about the greeters, “The Way We Get By,” was shown in Washington, D.C., Sen. Susan Collins explained the context to viewers there. “The first question many of you have is, why Bangor, Maine,” Sen. 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.”
The troops are quiet as they shuffle off the plane; it may be possible to distinguish the homeward bound from the outward bound by the weary look on the faces of the former, and the anxiety in the eyes of the latter. Either way, a handshake from a 70-year-old veteran must mean so much to this generation serving the nation in the military, because that handshake carries the weight of experience.
In this post-military draft era, too many of us are removed from the Americans who choose to serve the nation by enlisting. The troop greeters bridge this gap, and remind us that we all have a duty to thank these men and women for taking on the dangerous, difficult and demanding work of implementing the policies of our elected officials. The greeters are Maine at its best.