BANGOR, Maine — Saturday’s joint open house-celebration honoring members of the military on Armed Forces Day and the Maine Troop Greeters who have sent them off and welcomed them back, no matter what the time or weather was, couldn’t have been scripted any better.
In fact, the best part of the three-hour event was totally unscripted.
Just before the event began early Saturday afternoon, an unscheduled military flight stopped at Bangor International Airport and 267 members of the U.S. Armed Forces filed into the second-floor concourse while the 195th Army Band was tuning up to play for the celebration.
“This is my third time through Bangor,” said Staff Sgt. Daniel Garnett, who calls Arizona home.
“It’s something I look forward to because I expect people to be here, but I didn’t expect this.”
Approximately 200 people filled BIA’s concourse to recognize the national celebration of Armed Forces Day and to show their appreciation for services the Maine Troop Greeters have provided for the last eight years.
“It seems so fitting to celebrate both Armed Forces Day and the eighth anniversary of the troop greeters at the same time because the troop greeters’ efforts have touched more than a million members of our military,” said U.S. Sen. Susan Collins. “That truly is extraordinary and a cause for celebration.”
Both Collins and Maine 2nd District U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud noted how the troop greeters’ tradition of greeting and seeing off the troops has taken on a life of its own.
“I don’t think it was ever envisioned to be this widespread, or the effect it would really have on soldiers coming or going, but when I was first elected to Congress, many of my colleagues would talk to me about some of the soldiers in their own states and how they landed here in Bangor and were greeted so warmly at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning and how much it meant to them,” said Michaud.
Garnett, whose DC 10-30 troop transport plane was flying from Colorado Springs, Colo., to Afghanistan, said it’s the simple act of a hug, or a handshake, or a word of thanks that makes all the difference.
“I think it gives us a better sense of purpose and pride in what we’re doing,” Garnett said. “I think it just means we’re appreciated. Sometimes we get a bit disconnected from friends, relatives and the general American public and we want to feel like we’re doing the right thing, and sometimes all it takes to do that is a big hug.”
Even Collins, who has long been a vocal supporter and celebrant of the troop greeters and their efforts, admitted being pleasantly surprised at how the troop greeters have become synonymous with her state.
“I knew there would be a core group of committed people who would try to keep it going year after year, day after day, flight after flight, but I never dreamed so many individuals would get involved, and that’s a real tribute to the state of Maine,” she said. “When you think about it, the greeters have welcomed almost as many members of our military as those who live in the entire state of Maine. That’s incredible.”
Maj. Gen. John W. Libby, adjutant general of the Maine National Guard, said he hears constant appreciation and accolades from people all over the world for the efforts of the Maine Troop Greeters.
“I can tell you when I meet with my 53 contemporaries from all the other states, territories and districts, they’re always so appreciative of what we do in Maine,” Libby said. “We’re all looking simply for people to validate what we do in our life’s work with a simple handshake or thank you, and the troop greeters do that night and day.”
Collins said it’s that determination and reliability that has really carved out a nationwide reputation for the greeters.
“I think that’s what impresses so many people when they come through here … it doesn’t matter if it’s the middle of the night or in the midst of a storm, there’s always a group of people here to thank and greet them and I know how much it means to the troops who come through here,” said the senator, an Aroostook County native.
Services also provided the troops include the use of a computer for enlisted men and women to talk to their families via live video and audio, along with donated cell phones and prepaid phone minutes cards so they can talk to friends and family while at the airport.
But it’s still the simple things that seem to count most.
“One soldier coming back from a long tour in Iraq had his eyes start watering when he talked about how he was greeted in Bangor and how much it meant to him,” said Michaud. “All too often, people try to equate what things mean by a dollar value, but it doesn’t cost anything to thank someone for their service, and that means more to these soldiers than getting a gift.”