BANGOR, Maine — A decade’s worth of hugs, handshakes and smiles for U.S. troops returning home from deployments to war zones and other global hot spots was celebrated Saturday during a 10th anniversary bash for the Maine Troop Greeters.
Also honored were active and former members of all branches of the U.S. military. Although it barely received attention in many other cities and towns, Saturday was Armed Services Day.
Since 2003, the troop greeters have welcomed back 6,700 flights, shaken the hands of nearly 1.4 million troops and petted the heads of nearly 340 military dogs, according to the troop greeters’ website at www.themainetroopgreeters.org.
An open house at Bangor International Airport marking both celebrations drew more than 100 well-wishers, including Ann LePage, Maine’s first lady.
LePage said that supporting the military, both present and past, was the cause she chose to spotlight when her husband was elected governor.
“I’m a firm believer that in order for our troops to accomplish the mission that they are sent to do, they must have the strength of family, loved ones and a grateful nation behind them here at home,” she said.
“Being in the position that I am, I have had the opportunity of meeting some amazing people and the troop greeters are at the top my list,” she said. “All of you here are an inspiration to both Paul and I and countless others throughout America. You have pledged to be here for our service men and women and dogs until every man and woman in uniform comes home.
“Your warm wishes, your kind faces and your unyielding support sends them off and welcomes them home,” she said. “A hug, a handshake or even just a smile might seem like a small gesture to offer, but to a service member stepping on U.S. soil after deployment, it means everything.”
A few simple gestures or words also carry deep meaning for troops leaving U.S. soil, noted Pastor Steve Nute, a troop greeter who turned up in the biker leathers he wears as a member of the Patriot Guard. He also is an Army veteran.
While at BIA last November, Nute met a dejected-looking young private headed to Afghanistan. He was about 19 and sitting by himself at a table in the airport cafeteria
“I went over and I said, ‘Son, can I thank you for your service?’ and he said ‘I haven’t done nothing yet.’ Well, I am a preacher and I went right into preacher mode and I said, ‘Young man, where did you find that uniform?’ and he goes, ‘I got it when I signed up.’
“And I said, ‘Oh. So in a time of war, you did what 1 percent of Americans have done. The rest is just your job, son. You’ve already done the honorable.’ And he lifted his head up and he went up that ramp like he was somebody.”