BANGOR, Maine — A familiar face visited Bangor to help announce the launch of a public effort to raise $500,000 to memorialize and preserve the legacy of the Maine Troop Greeters.
Master Sgt. Kevin Tillman became something of a celebrity in March of 1991, when he stepped off a troop plane at Bangor International Airport and was shocked to find the John Bapst Memorial High School band and hundreds of local people there to greet him and his fellow soldiers.
He borrowed a saxophone from a high schooler and played a rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” that brought people to tears.
On Tuesday, Tillman, now 51, joined a group of about 100 fellow veterans, community and airport officials and members of Maine Troop Greeters to announce the start of the public phase of a fundraising campaign to found a Troop Greeters Museum.
Even a quarter-century later, Tillman, an Illinois native, vividly recalls the welcome and treatment he and his fellow soldiers received in Bangor. People met them with handshakes, hugs, food, conversation and well-wishes.
“It was genuine, it was real and you all are phenomenal,” Tillman told the Greeters. He urged people to support the museum effort and help preserve the Troop Greeters legacy.
The museum would be located in the hallway that connects the airport’s international terminal with the domestic terminal. That’s the hallway troops walk down when they reach Bangor, and it’s usually where they first meet the Greeters.
Several people who attended Tuesday’s event were in the same spot 25 years ago, during Tillman’s first brief stop in Bangor.
Chuck Knowlen, a past chairman for the Troop Greeters, said he wants the museum to become a destination, one of the places tourists will stop to visit when passing through Bangor. It will be open whenever the airport is open.
Although the Greeters weren’t incorporated until 2008, their origins stretch back to 1990, when the United States military ousted Iraqi forces that had invaded neighboring Kuwait. Throughout the Gulf War, troops headed to the Middle East flowed through Bangor International Airport.
The tradition was revived following Sept. 11, 2001, when U.S. forces returned to the region to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Since then, the group has welcomed more than 1.5 million troops to the airport. They stepped off 7,400 flights, either heading to or home from war. Those troops left behind thousands of pieces of memorabilia, including 5,000 coins representing their units and operations, 400 dog tags, American flags, unit patches, stickers, pictures and more.
“Let this museum stand as a tribute to the effort all of you have put in over the years,” City Councilor Ben Sprague told the Troop Greeters during the event.
The flights have tailed off in recent years, as most U.S. troops have returned from the Middle East. The group’s focus has turned to preserving the thousands of items and stories they’ve gathered over the years. The museum will feature video screens displaying interviews with Greeters and troops who have been welcomed by them over the years.
Some items will continue to be held in the current Troop Greeter room, rotated into the museum display on occasion.
Nichi Farnham, a former state senator who is married to the state’s new adjutant general, Douglas Farnham, is leading the fundraising committee.
She said Tuesday that fundraising for the museum is off to a good start, even though the only money raised so far has been through “quiet” behind-the-scenes efforts before the launch of an official campaign. The group already has raised $140,000 from more than 200 donors ranging from banks to private citizens.
The $500,000 goal includes $100,000 that will go toward an endowment to maintain the museum into the future.
Donations may be made at mainetroopgreetersmuseum.org.
For a $25 contribution, the group will send a Maine Troop Greeters Museum commemorative coin. Proceeds go toward the museum effort.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.