Longtime troop greeter Cathy Czarnecki finds one display in the brand new Maine Troop Greeters Museum at Bangor International Airport particularly moving. It’s the one that features the map that hung for years in a terminal and showed returning soldiers where Bangor was located, relative to the rest of the world.

“You can see on the map where Bangor is almost rubbed off, because soldiers would touch it,” said Czarnecki, co-chair of the campaign to build the museum. “They were figuring out where Bangor was. They were remembering they were home. That kind of says it all.”

The Maine Troop Greeters, a non-profit comprised of dedicated Mainers who since 1991 have gathered to say hello or goodbye to every flight full of men and women in uniform returning to or leaving the United States, unveiled their museum Friday morning.

Scheduled to be on hand at the grand opening were U.S. Sen Angus King, U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, Bangor Mayor Joe Baldacci, airport director Tony Caruso and many of the hundreds of individuals who have volunteered over the years to greet troops, raise funds for the museum and catalog the thousands of items in the museum’s collection.

Also scheduled to be present was Master Sgt. Kevin Tillman, who people remember as the soldier who, after being greeted in Bangor in 1991 when returning from Operation Desert Storm, was so moved he grabbed a saxophone from a John Bapst High School band member and played an impromptu rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Before there was such a thing, his performance went viral.

The Troop Greeters have for the past four years worked toward building the $500,000 museum to showcase some of the more than 34,000 pieces of memorabilia gathered from returning troops over the past 26 years.

That collection includes cards and letters, flags, photos, dog tags, banners, souvenirs from countries like Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and nearly 6,000 challenge coins, given to greeters by the more than 1.5 million troops who passed through BIA, often the first stop for military flights from overseas.

The troop greeters contracted Prospect Design, a firm out of Portland, to design the displays of memorabilia that line the hallway that connects the airport’s international and domestic terminals — the very hallway troops walk down when they arrive. The resulting glass cases are filled with ephemera that, together with thoughtfully worded placards, tell a moving story about community, caring and the true meaning of service; both in the military and in the civilian world.

Troop greeters personally catalogued the thousands of individual items. Although they came together to greet soldiers returning from service, they ended up getting a crash course in museum curation.

“We all had to learn how a museum works. We learned how to catalog everything, how to put it all into a database,” said Gil Cory, co-chair of the museum campaign. “It was thousands of volunteer hours. It was lots of painstaking work.”

That the museum was ready to open for Veterans Day weekend was just the icing on the cake.

“We don’t like deadlines, but this was a deadline that we wanted to make,” said former Bangor city council member and state senator Nichi Farnham, fundraising chair for the museum and an Air Force veteran. “It really means a lot to have it open for Veteran’s Day.”

Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.