BANGOR, Maine — At the height of U.S. military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, the dedicated group of citizens known as the Maine Troop Greeters scrambled to Bangor International Airport as many as 11 times a day to meet men and women in uniform, returning to or leaving the United States.
There were firm handshakes, hugs, tears and lots of stories. That era is ending.
“There are no flights this week,” Chuck Knowlen, chairman of the group of 250 local volunteers who greet troop transfer flights going overseas and coming home, said Thursday.
The numbers tell the story: the troop greeters met 554 flights in 2012 and just 251 in 2013. With the Iraq engagement over and withdrawal of most of the approximately 37,500 U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan expected in the year ahead, the winding down of military flights has led to questions about the future of the iconic group that has met more than 1.4 million service members since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
“We’re going to do this just as long as we have guys and gals coming through, until we hear differently from Washington,” said Knowlen, a 20-year U.S. Army veteran who earned the Silver Star in Vietnam and has been a troop greeter for seven years.
“There are no plans at this point to disband the group,” he said.
With fewer hands to shake, Knowlen is among those turning their attention to another mission: preserving the history the troop greeters have made and recorded over the last 11 years, he said while standing inside the room at the airport dedicated to the group that is filled with memorabilia given to them by servicemen and women.
‘We’re behind them’
About two-thirds of the troop greeters have some sort of military background or ties, which is why they understand how important a homecoming is, especially for those who have been overseas in harm’s way. Many of the greeters remember firsthand the pain caused when returning troops from Vietnam were not treated with respect. It’s why they vowed to give servicemen and women the welcome home they deserved.
William “Bill” Knight, a dedicated greeter who often was seen proudly wearing his black World War II veteran hat, is credited with being one of the founding fathers of the group.
“Those guys need to know we’re behind them and support them 100 percent,” Knight, who served in both the Army Air Corps and the U.S. Navy, said on April 3, 2005, as the troop greeters met their 1,000th flight.
Knight and fellow greeters Jerry Mundy and Joan Gaudet were featured in the 2009 documentary film “The Way We Get By,” which won several documentary film awards and led to a trip to the White House for the three Maine stars.
Knight died Christmas Day 2013 at age 91 after meeting a large, but unknown, number of flights. He is one of approximately “40 [troop greeters] who have passed since we started doing this,” Knowlen said.
The story of one veteran soldier who has watched attitudes change in the United States about those in uniform since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks 13 years ago illustrates one reason why the Maine Troop Greeters remain so dedicated to what they do, Knowlen said.
“A young man in the military for 15 years and who was on his ninth — his ninth trip out — he said, ‘I go through a lot of airports and when this all started everybody would come up and shake your hand.
“‘Now you go through the airport and people look away — you guys don’t,’” the veteran soldier told Knowlen. “‘You don’t realize how much coming through Bangor does for us.’”
Part of the airport
Many of those in uniform were so moved by the troop greeters that they left behind or sent mementos as a way to say thanks.
Each and every piece — the coins, patches, flags, souvenirs — is a little bit of Maine Troop Greeter history and plans are being made to permanently display them in the terminal hallway connecting to the international gate, known as “Greeters Hall.”
The troop greeters, airport officials and the Bangor Museum and History Center applied for an Institute of Museum and Library Services grant last year to build a permanent display for the collection, but failed to get the grant mostly because there were no matching funds, Knowlen said. Greeters have recently started a capital campaign to raise matching funds for the $120,000 grant to build the museum.
“The airport believes the best place to have the museum would be here,” Knowlen said, standing near the slightly downward sloping hallway where soldiers, airmen, seamen and Marines of both sexes made their way toward the cheering and flag waving troop greeters.
“They’re part of the history of the airport. They’re part of our team,” BIA director Tony Caruso said recently.
The airport has received “easily thousands of messages” from troops, parents, siblings and loved ones expressing their gratitude for the troop greeters, Caruso said, adding some of the items are in storage and may eventually become part of the planned museum.
“This stuff is irreplaceable,” Bangor historian Richard Shaw, a “semi-retired” troop greeter, said Wednesday. “There are autographed flags, Iraqi money, Saudi stuff, Kuwaiti items.”
“We’ve got everything,” Knowlen said. “Helmets, 56 macrame bracelets, 277 dog tags from soldiers. A purple heart. Someone gave us his purple heart.”
The man who donated the prized medal for being wounded in battle did not leave his name, but “he was very glad he was alive and wanted to present it to us,” Cathy Czarnecki, the group’s treasurer, said Thursday.
There are 29 folded flags with certificates saying they flew over foreign soil, 1,765 patches from military units from across the country, 184 infantry badges and 5,236 service coins, including one that was not government-issued.
“It’s the end of a 30 millimeter round. The father carried it during Desert Storm,” Knowlen said. “When his son went to Iraq he carried it and he gave it to us. It’s a coin, but it’s not an official coin.”
Almost all of the coins and other items are on display and categorized in a computer database, which includes who gave the item and their unit, when, and where he or she served. There are notations for any special significance the item had for the person in uniform.
A number of the items belonged to people who perished while deployed. The troop greeters also have a memory book that lists everyone who has died in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, some that feature photos, newspaper clippings, notes from fellow servicemembers who made it home and letters from family members.
It’s why the Maine Troop Greeters are legendary among members of the military.
“Everywhere you go, people know the Maine Troop Greeters,” Caruso said. “This is where troop greeting really started — right here at the airport. They’ve helped, certainly, to put Bangor on the map.”
Not done yet
Members of the 262nd Engineer Company of the Maine Army National Guard are currently training for a scheduled deployment to Afghanistan in December, where they will help close down bases and forward observation posts as U.S. troops withdraw from the country.
With government leaders considering leaving a contingent of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, the possibility that the Maine Troop Greeters will still have a job to do in the years to come is possible.
“Who knows in the next year what is going to happen?” Knowlen said. “We’ll be here.”
The troop withdrawal is bittersweet for his fellow greeters, who have become family through their service. Of the hundreds in the group, a core group of around 40 could always be counted on to be at the airport, he said.
Nancy Bond of Corinth says she feels honored to have met more than 1,500 flights since starting in 1991. She still goes to the airport whenever possible.
“It just touches your heart,” she said recently. “It’s like an addiction — it keeps drawing you back. It’s very worthwhile and very rewarding to say, ‘thank you’ and hug them.”
When she started, Bond often brought along her grandchildren, and has pictures to prove it.
“They’re now 19 and 14,” she said. “I took my grandson and three of his friends from high school. It’s good for the young kids to listen and talk to them [the troops] about what is going on.”
In addition to the last 11 years, the troop greeters also met some 85,000 troops who returned in 1991 from Operation Desert Storm.
Army medic Kevin Tillman, of the 82nd Airborne Division, put Bangor in the national spotlight when he stepped off the first returning transport plane on March 8, 1991, and as TV cameras rolled borrowed a local student’s tenor sax to play a heartfelt and bluesy rendition of “The “Star-Spangled Banner” that brought tears to the eyes of many in attendance.
The cumulative number of troop transfer flights greeted in Bangor is written on a board in the back of the troop greeters’ room at BIA, just above the donated cellphones with unlimited minutes that soldiers may use to call home. As of Tuesday, the troop greeters had met 7,057 flights, 375 dogs and 1,430,617 troops since 2003.
“The troop greeters become old friends to our returning service members,” Lt. Col. Darryl W. Lyon of the 11th Civil Support Team of Waterville said Wednesday. He led the 172nd Mountain Infantry when the unit deployed in 2006. “You look forward to seeing old friends.
“When you came through Bangor you just knew you would get a chance to see a friend, and that meant a lot,” the veteran soldier said.
This story was amended Jan. 25 to include information about the troop greeters during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.