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It’s 2 p.m. on a cold Sunday in March. Outside the Bangor International Airport terminal a light snow is falling, but inside a couple dozen friends and I have something else on our minds: greeting a World Air jumbo jet filled with 300 troops back from a year in Iraq.
“There they are!” shrieks a woman troop greeter, and the rest of us fall into line.
One by one, the dazed men and women walk down the ramp and into what most of us hope is a heart-stopping moment in their lives, one they’ll tell their grandchildren about.
“Welcome home, sergeant!” says troop greeter Don Crosby with a smile, and the adrenalin begins to flow.
I couldn’t hold a candle to faithfuls such as Crosby, who has logged hundreds of flights, or Bill Knight, an award-winning, 82-year-old World War II veteran who is the first in line to welcome the men and women home.
Knight and others, such as husband-and-wife team Ron and Evelyn Bradman, have been phoning greeters since the first troop greeting on May 2. BIA phones Knight, then, from his home in Bradford, at all hours of the day and night, he rallies dozens of troop greeters, who in turn phone other greeters.
Actually, I thought my troop-greeting days were over in this post-Sept. 11 era of tight security. A veteran of about 75 returning flights from Operation Desert Storm in 1991, I put away my red, white and blue T-shirt, portable flag and name tag.
To my surprise, throughout last summer, airport management allowed greeters to return to BIA, and day by day, week by week, our spirit has warmed the hearts of untold Marines, Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard personnel of Operation Iraqi Freedom, who stretch their legs, and their weary arms, in Bangor during two-hour refueling stops.
At last count, the flights since May have topped 300. In recent weeks five or six flights, incoming and outgoing, have stopped some days in Bangor. Many one-year commitments have ended in Iraq, so the men and women return home, to be replaced by others for another year.
So, what I have learned as the only member of the media to greet troops on a regular basis?
First, and foremost, be humble and check your ego at the door. Most of the time I’m there as a civilian, not on active duty, so I blend in and take only mental notes of what these dedicated people have told me.
I’ve heard stories, believe me. A young Maryland Army man recently told me he was taking medication for panic attacks since seeing many of his friends die before his eyes. Many troops during their first time back on American soil are remarkably candid, and seem to be supportive of President Bush and his war effort.
Many speak of Iraqi poverty, which would make the worst New York ghetto seem like Lake Tahoe. And children, hordes of them, everywhere, wandering Baghdad’s streets, knowing enough English to beg for Mars Bars or Lucky Strikes.
Iraqi sand, I’m told, is finer than talcum powder. It blows up your nose and down your throat. Mix that with 140-plus-degree heat in July and you have a deadly combination.
Camels are dumb, and taste like pork when cooked right. MREs (meals ready to eat) aren’t too bad, but are no match for a Bangor hamburger or lobster roll, big hits in the airport coffee shop. So were the Red Baron Lounge’s $3 draft beers until smoking was banned by state law. Now the lounge is half-empty, if open at all for some late flights.
The all-volunteer military continues to impress me. I haven’t met a rude or unpleasant soldier yet. I don’t expect to, either.
Their rainbow of names – Lopez, Harnandez, even an occasional Shaw, and oddball names such as Outlaw and Yankee – are what America is all about. I love their individual spirit, the manner in which each troop finds some way to stand out from the crowd, wearing a picture of a newborn yet unseen or a husband or wife.
And how about those cornrows? What works of art.
In the meantime, as time allows, I’ll join my friends as long as there are troops to welcome. It would be even more joyful if the horrors of war hadn’t brought us all together.
“God bless Bangor, Maine!” is a frequent chant as the troops reboard their flights and get on with their lives in faraway places.
That’s music to our ears.
Dick Shaw can be reached at 990-8204 or firstname.lastname@example.org.