BANGOR, Maine — There is little to be said about the Maine Troop Greeters that hasn’t already been said, written about or immortalized in film.
The exploits of the volunteer group, which last week greeted its millionth troop at Bangor International Airport, have been well-established for years, but the group’s chairman said he remains awed by its continued evolution.
“It gets stronger every year. We’re recruiting new members. We’re getting donations all the time,” said Tom Kohl, a troop greeter since 2005 and a veteran of the Vietnam War. “The one constant is the consistent flow of troops coming through.”
Dozens of troop greeters filled seats on the second floor of BIA’s domestic terminal on Wednesday, but for a change they were not awaiting a flight full of soldiers. This day was for them.
BIA staff and others hosted a formal ceremony to recognize the milestone reached last week by the Maine Troop Greeters and to praise the evolving partnership that has earned the group celebrity status. A crew from “ABC World News” with Diane Sawyer chronicled Wednesday’s event.
Airport Director Rebecca Hupp said the publicity generated by Jerry Mundy, Bill Knight and Joan Gaudet — three greeters who were featured in the recent documentary film “The Way We Get By” — is well-deserved. But Hupp also compared the greeters to the human body in that no one part is more important than the next.
Similarly, she said, each troop that passes through the gates of BIA is equally important, whether it is the first or the 1 millionth.
Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, who participated in Wednesday’s recognition, said he is still struck by how many people he talks to in Washington, D.C., who know all about the greeters from Bangor. When Michaud travels overseas to Iraq and Afghanistan, he said, he always is greeted by smiles when he tells the troops he is from Maine.
Maj. Gen. John W. Libby of the Maine National Guard, a veteran of the Vietnam War, said he represented a generation of soldiers who didn’t get recognition of any kind when they returned.
“Regardless of how we feel politically, it’s nice that we can commend their service,” Libby said.
For the greeters, their simple mission — a handshake and a heartfelt “thank you” — hasn’t changed since they first began meeting troop flights at BIA in the early 1990s, then again after Sept. 11, 2001. Kohl said what keeps all the greeters coming back are the stories shared by troops.
“Every greeter has a story,” Kohl said. “I remember one soldier who was talking frantically on a cell phone and we found out later that he was coaching his wife through childbirth. We’ve had other instances where fathers get to meet their newborn children for the first time. It’s powerful stuff.”
Aside from the normal pomp and circumstance, the Maine Troop Greeters received a couple of special gifts as part of Wednesday’s ceremony. The first was a new neon sign that hangs above the greeters’ lounge, which was donated by the airport. The second was a check for $10,000 from Verizon Wireless, which has been pro-viding cell phones to the greeters for years.
Kohl said the support has empowered his organization to continue greeting as long as troops come through Bangor.
“We hope the wars end soon, but we know that they can’t stop until the job is done,” he said.
The chairman of the troop greeters said he could talk for hours about the troops that he’s had the pleasure of meeting at BIA over the years but he had a harder time accepting recognition for his own group.
“I guess we all like to hear a thank you once in awhile,” Kohl said. “So thank you for the thank you.”
BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO BY JOHN CLARKE RUSS
Maine Troop Greeters turn toward a new Maine Troop Greeters sign that was unveiled during Bangor International Airport’s “Thanks A Million” appreciation event recognizing their recent milestone of having greeted more than 1 million troops. Joan Gaudet and Bill Knight are in the foreground.