Simple – my son had called from Kuwait – the first step of coming home from Iraqi where he had been stationed at Al Asad air base for the previous 6 months. "Hey Dad, I’ll be arriving sometime early Saturday morning somewhere in Maine!"
"That’s great! We’ll be there…..er, which one?" I asked…..his response was typical – "How should I know? They don’t tell me that!". My response – Thank GOD for the Internet. I had remembered a story about some group that met troops at an airport – the Maine Troop Greeters.
As a frequent flyer, I know that airports are dark, dreary places early in the morning. Shops are shuttered, lights are dimmed, and the public spaces are deserted. Those few individuals that might be present wander about bleary eyed and alone. This is not a place most people wish to be, and believe me, most frequent flyers try to avoid it at all costs.
That early (4:20am) Saturday morning, Col. Wakeman and his warriors from the 2nd Marine Air Wing, Squadron 1 (the "Banshees") found themselves in a much different place. Ten to twelve members of the group called the Maine Troop Greeters happily and forcefully welcomed these sleepy travelers home. This is a a group of retired veterans (mostly) of all branches who have made it their mission to not allow a repeat of what returning Vietnam vets had happen to them. Each and every Marine, soldier, sailor, and airman, no matter their rank, gets a handshake, a smile of thanks, and people more than happily delivering phrases such as "Good morning….Thank you for your service…..Welcome home….Welcome back to the USA". The ladies of the group often give out hugs to anyone willing to accept it. Lined up one after another, the returning service man and woman is received by each and every Greeter, ensuring that their message is heard. At the end of the line, another Greeter directs them to their office, offering free snacks and the use of one of the forty-odd donated cell phones to call home to family and friends.
And they have done this action over and over and over again. And they do it with gusto and enthusiasm. First coming together during the Gulf War, they have met every flight to Bangor (which I discovered to be a major way-point for the troops), inbound or outbound, during Operation Iraqi Freedom. This is a total of well over 1400 flights greeting over 275,000 troops. And tonight, this was the second inbound flight – a group of Navy personnel arrived first at 1:30am. And this intrepid group then stayed afterwards so as to be able to greet the Marines’ flight. Not content to just quickly greet, members make it more personable by staying, befriending, and talking with the troops until their layover is out. Purpose? Simply to let them know that someone cares and is thankful for what they are doing.
The Greeters must be doing a good job and many units have shown them that this volunteer service is appreciated. Display case after case is filled with coins and the walls festooned with unit patches from those units grateful that someone was willing to put themselves out on their behalf.
Why do they do this? One word: Vietnam. One seasoned citizen, a lady of 90 years, said it was the right thing to do and looked forward to greeting all these young people, her eyes twinkling even as she viewed some the more experienced Marines whose "high and tight" haircuts were flecked more grey than dark. Others said that they had wished someone had done it for them, so they were going to ensure that they did it for today’s armed service members.
Yet, the Maine Troop Greeters are not the only ones in helping the troops. The airport management donated the large glassed in office space right next to the walkway that the troops use. Sam’s Club donates snacks and cookes (the Greeters supply the candy, relying on donations from anyone except the troops they serve). The coffee shop, which at this time would normally be closed at any other airport, opens up for every flight. The Gift Shop, too, lights up and throws the doors open. The Sheraton makes it’s lobby computer available for use as well. Anything to make it more special. Basically, a community cares.
One of the members, a Navy vet, said that he’d probably burn in hell for saying it, but he enjoys seeing the Marines – "they seem to walk a little bit straighter, smile a bit wider, and appreciate it a bit more than the others".
Another Greeter wore a red and yellow sweatshirt with the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor with the words "Not quite as mean" (actually, one would be hard pressed to find a more gentle mannered, soft spoken guy), "not as lean" (to be kind, very much an understatement), "but still a Marine" (truer words never spoken – still putting the care and welfare of other Marines above his own).
Supporting the Troops? You bet! Each and every day, several flights are met by these folks, putting our troops ahead of their needs. Wwe are thankful for the work of the Maine Troop Greeters that make it a little less weary for those that deserve it. For without their service, we’d never have known where Dan would have arrived!
Note: since this was originally written, the Maine Troop Greeters have now greeted over 300,000 of our armed forces. This is "supporting the troops" indeed!