BANGOR, Maine — Since May 2003, nearly 1.4 million U.S. troops have filtered through Bangor International Airport. The Maine Troop Greeters have been there, no matter the weather or time of day, to welcome those servicemen and women home or wish them well as they head off to war.
Moved by the show of support, many of the troops have chosen to leave behind belongings — coins, medals, patches, signatures, photographs, letters and more. Today that collection consists of 30 flags, 4,880 challenge coins, dozens of bracelets and medals, and countless more stickers, images and personal items, all of which may need a new home as combat operations in the Middle East wind down.
“If or when we are no longer needed, all this is going to have to go somewhere,” Chuck Knowlen, chairman of the Maine Troop Greeters board, said Wednesday while standing among the thousands of pieces of memorabilia on display in cases and along the walls of a second-floor room in the airport’s domestic terminal.
Knowlen said that at the peak of military operations, as many as 11 military flights would come through Bangor International Airport each day. Now, there is an average of one per day, he said. The White House has said it plans to withdraw most troops from Afghanistan by late 2014.
If the number of troops coming through BIA continues to dwindle, it may no longer be necessary for the airport to set aside a room for the Troop Greeters and their collection of memorabilia, airport officials and troop greeters have said.
Knowlen said it would make sense to house the collection at the airport, but he stressed that nothing is set in stone and that the organization is weighing its long-term options.
“Bangor International Airport and the Greeters agree that if we have a Troop Greeter exhibit, it probably should be in the airport because that is where the history is being made,” Knowlen said.
The Troop Greeters have partnered with airport officials and the Bangor Museum and History Center to apply for an Institute of Museum and Library Services grant to build a permanent display for the collection, according to Risteen Bahr, marketing manager for BIA. Knowlen said the grant is for about $100,000.
The grant application includes designs for large, lighted display cases on each side of the hallway leading from the international terminal to the domestic terminal — the same hallway that nearly 1.4 million troops have walked down since 2003. The hallway itself would be converted into a sort of museum dedicated to the troops and the people who greeted them over the years.
If that grant doesn’t come through, the Troop Greeters will weigh other options for the future, Knowlen said.
“We believe that a permanent exhibit of these items entrusted to us and the stories that go with them will help us fulfill the trust that has been placed with us by our brave men and women as they passed through Bangor International Airport,” Knowlen said.
In one large binder of mail received by the group is a letter from the mother of a soldier killed in action, Knowlen said. The Troop Greeters posted a picture online of her son at the airport before he boarded a plane bound for the Middle East. It was the last picture ever taken of her son, she said. In the letter, she thanks the greeters for their work.
Those are the sorts of stories the group and airport would like to preserve, Bahr said.
Knowlen said he doesn’t want a repeat of what happened in the 1990s after the “original” troop greeters began welcoming military personnel returning from Operation Desert Storm. The greeters, who didn’t have a room at the time, divided up the items troops left behind and those pieces “scattered everywhere.”
The Troop Greeters have seen history take place at the airport, Knowlen said. Countless tears have been shed, some by greeters and troops swapping stories, some by families overjoyed at the sight of loved ones stepping back onto American soil, some by troops grieving for fallen comrades.
Those stories will be protected, one way or another, Knowlen said, adding that greeters will be there as long as there are troops to greet.
“We will be at our post, greeting and thanking our men and women, as long as the need exists,” Knowlen said.