On an early morning, only two days into the month of February, I looked out the window of the plane at the Maine coastline covered in snow and ice. The scene warmed me.
There were hills and trees. Two-story houses formed a dot-to-dot pattern across the landscape. Smoke rose from the chimneys of the homes and the stacks of local industry. Each curling plume gave evidence that someone was awake this early winter morning.
Would they be there for us today? I wondered. It was awfully early on a cold February morning, so I didn’t want to get my hopes up too high only to be disappointed.
The plane landed, and we walked corridor after winding corridor as we made our way from Gate 6. Finally, we rounded the last corner and the passageway opened into the international airport terminal at Bangor.
In the distance, down the long sloping hallway, I could see shops sparkling with lights and goodies for sale: gift shops, a bookstore, a coffeehouse. But then the best sight of all came into view.
There he was: an old gray-haired man, bent and leaning on a cane, standing midway down the passageway, front and center such that no one got by him without shaking his hand. My heart soared.
I had heard about the Maine Troop Greeters. They have been at Bangor International Airport for every flight since May 2003, greeting troops as they depart for and return from Iraq and Afghanistan. They offer kind words, muffins, cookies and free cell phone calls.
I smiled, my eyes welling with tears. There he stood, as tall and proud as his 80-odd years would allow. “Welcome home. Job well done,” he said to me. He said it with warmth and enthusiasm as each of us passed by his post.
His World War II baseball cap told his story — you’ve seen the kind, with the WWII-era ribbons embroidered on the front and “WWII Veteran” lettered neatly above and below. He’d been there. Exactly where, who knows? Which branch, who knows? None of that matters now. What matters is the warm embrace of one who knows.
I wondered whether he was the lone greeter that morning. But then I saw the others forming a gauntlet. They were there. The Maine Troop Greeters were there! The people of Maine were here to greet us and welcome us home. I was so excited. I felt just like a 5-year-old on Christmas morning.
These were men and women who had served in World War II, Korea or Vietnam; each had his own war, each his own experience. There were battles on the sea and in the air, on the ground in the jungles and in other far-flung places seemingly godforsaken then, and now largely forgotten by everyone except those who served there. Names such as Guadalcanal, Pusan, Inchon or Da Nang mean something deeply personal to them, the same way the names of places such as Fallujah, Ramadi, Habbaniyah or Al Taqqadum now hold meaning for me. The names and places are different, even the experiences themselves in ways are very different, yet warrior to warrior, there is a bond that transcends time.
Just a few days earlier, I had watched at the Al Taqqadum morgue as my Marines processed the remains of four Army soldiers who wouldn’t be receiving a hug from the old World War II veteran standing in the passageway in Maine. Yes, they were home now. They, too, had received a homecoming welcome — just not the kind they had hoped for. There was no warm embrace for them. Instead, loved ones probably wept and embraced one another. No, the four Army guys couldn’t feel the warmth of a physical embrace anymore. They were embraced now instead by the icy arms of death.
After the short refueling stop, we loaded back onto the plane. I returned to my window seat near the front. I sat alone in the row. The serene early winter morning was haunting in its beauty. It was peaceful and comforting but also lonely and desolate. My eyes welled with tears.
Those Army soldiers should have been coming home in a few months to shake hands with the old Army guys that stand duty here. But they never will. I let the tears flow unabated down my cheeks.
Sheri Snively is a Quaker chaplain in the U.S. Navy Reserve. She deployed to Iraq with the First Marine Logistics Group. This column is excerpted and adapted from her book, “Heaven in the Midst of Hell” (Raven Oaks Press, 2010).