Tuesday, November 10, 2009

For troop greeters every day is Veterans Day

By DeWayne Wickham

While the nation pauses tomorrow in annual observance of the patriotism of this country's servicemen and women, nearly every day is Veterans Day at Bangor International Airport.

It is through this small American portal that many of the troops who are dispatched to, and return from, Afghanistan and Iraq travel. It's at this airport in Maine that a small band of senior citizens have greeted every soldier, sailor, Marine and airman who traveled through its corridors since May 3, 2003. They're called "troop greeters," but in essence they serve a much greater purpose. They are the heart and conscience of a grateful nation.

For far too many Americans, Veterans Day - Nov. 11 - is simply a day off from work with pay that is barely distinguishable from any other holiday. But for Maine's troop greeters, who have seen more than 4,300 flights with nearly a million U.S. troops come and go, Veterans Day is almost a daily event - one they treat with great reverence.

"Our boys got a raw deal when they were over in Vietnam. ... We wanted to make sure that the government would not send our boys into battle, or to defend our country in any way, without giving them credit for what they're doing. We made up our minds that that would never happen again," 87-year-old Bill Knight said in the opening scene of The Way We Get By, a documentary about the troop greeters that airs tomorrow on PBS.

While most Americans view the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq with great detachment, the troop greeters take it personally. A contingent of them goes to Bangor's airport at all hours of the day and night to meet every plane that ferries troops into that facility. They welcome the troops with a handshake or embrace; they comfort them with simple words of appreciation, some snack food and the free use of cell phones.

That might not seem like much of a sacrifice until you consider that the troop greeters do this over and over again, as if each time they are there for a member of their own family.

"Once you start going to the airport to greet the troops, if you stay home you go through withdrawal," Joan Gaudet, 76, said in the film that her son, Aron Gaudet, directed.

If this film were only about what these aging patriots do for the morale of the young people this nation sends to war it would be worth watching. But it's about more than that. It's also about how these people's lives are made better by the sacrifices they make for the troops - a story that makes it compelling viewing.
At home, Joan Gaudet uses a walker to get around and is afraid to go out of the house, especially at night in the slippery snow of a Maine winter. But her gait stregthens when she enters the airport. The place has the same effect on Jerry Mundy, a 74-year-old retired ironworker.

"Jerry lost one of his sons at an early age," Aron Gaudet told me. "He can't connect with his son anymore but the thing he loves the most at the airport is to give these cell phones to the troops so they can connect with their parents."

That how they get by. They get past the pain in their lives by bringing some small pleasure to the troops America sends to war. And by doing so, they give new meaning to poet John Milton's words: "They also serve who only stand and wait."

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