BANGOR, Maine — Two decades ago, a 26-year-old U.S. Army medic with the 82nd Airborne stepped off a plane and into Bangor International Airport.
The medic was shocked when he entered the terminal on March 8, 1991, and was hit by the sounds of a high school band welcoming him and his comrades back from a six-month deployment during Operation Desert Storm.
He was so struck by the moment that he borrowed a high school student’s tenor saxophone and played a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that brought many to tears and drew national attention to Bangor.
More than 20 years later, that same soldier, 47-year-old Master Sgt. Kevin Tillman, returned to BIA to perform with the John Bapst Memorial High School band for a group of approximately 50 U.S. Army troops who were en route to Afghanistan.
This time Tillman brought his own sax — its name is Maria.
He also brought his 18-year-old son, James, who stands 6 feet 4 inches tall — just an inch or two shy of his dad.
“This is just amazing to see this as a civilian,” said James Tillman, who plans to join the U.S. Navy later this year. “So to be a military member and see this would be incredible.”
Onlookers waiting for flights, Bangor’s Troop Greeters, airport employees and TSA agents clapped along to the songs, sang, shot videos on cellphones and joined in a lengthy ovation for the troops.
James Tillman watched with a smile as his father, wearing his dress uniform, played along to classics such as Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” and Bruce Channel’s “Hey! Baby,” as well as patriotic songs such as “God Bless America” and the anthems for each of the five branches of the U.S. military.
James Tillman wasn’t born when his father grabbed the high school student’s saxophone in 1991, but he said he wishes he could have seen it.
In fact, none of the more than 80 John Bapst students playing along with Tillman during Wednesday’s performance were alive, let alone thought of, at the time of his first visit to Bangor.
But John Bapst’s band director Julie Ewing was there in 1991, she said Wednesday.
“It was unbelievable,” the band leader of 29 years said of the impromptu performance. “The entire airport went silent.”
Tillman became good friends with the Ewing family and has visited Maine several times since. He performed with the band for a group of troops and Troop Greeters during his visit in 2009.
This year, Tillman took a few days of leave from his base in Fort Dix, N.J., to participate.
For Tillman, Wednesday’s event was as much about thanking Bangor’s Troop Greeters as it was about thanking the troops.
“Why are they coming out over and over again, year after year?” Tillman said. “They don’t get paid. There’s no real award or recognition for what they do.”
They do it solely out of respect and support for the troops, he said.
Many of the soldiers coming through BIA had received welcomes and “thank yous” from the Bangor Troop Greeters before. For others, it was a first, and their reactions echoed those of many who passed through the airport before them.
“I’ve been deployed five times,” said U.S. Army Sgt. Dwayne Green of Texas, who came over to shake hands with Tillman and thank him for being part of the event. “This is the first time I’ve ever been sent off like this. Thank you.”
After a few hours of chatting with students and greeters, the troops lined up to file onto their plane bound for Afghanistan. The band played the anthems of the military branches. The Troop Greeters stood to either side, waiting to shake hands.
They didn’t say “goodbye.”
“We never say ‘goodbye,’” said Troop Greeter Janice Gordon of Bangor. “It’s got to be ‘See you later.’”