Last week, we rebroadcast the Emmy-nominated The Way We Get By. You can also watch it online through September 27, 2010. The film portrays a group of senior citizens who greet American soldiers at a tiny airport in Bangor, Maine. We received a number of amazing comments after the film aired, and wanted to highlight this one, from Lieutenant Kate van Auken, to show how the troop greeters affect the soldiers themselves.
Kate van Auken: The Way We Get By is an incredible film. As a soldier in the US Army, I only got to experience this phenomenal group once in my many deployments, but that is all it took. I wish the military would make it mandatory to go through Bangor so all of our troops can experience that feeling no words can express.
I have deployed a few times, once on a military contracted plane straight from Fort Dix, NJ to Ireland and then on to Kuwait and Iraq , as well as a few times via commercial aircraft through various airports. I am always amazed at those ordinary people brave enough to make comments to the troops as we stand in line at ticket counters and at security checks (stripping down to our socks and t-shirts just like everyone else) or just sitting in the terminal waiting endlessly for flights. For most people it is too awkward to approach a soldier. Some nervously approach troops to say something, possibly afraid that patriotism (genuine love for your country) equates somehow to politics and supporting a war. That enormous pride everyone felt on September 11th only lasted a few months. I wish we could have bottled that feeling for everyone, but life moved on and patriotism and pride in your country somehow went out of style – which makes the 1 MILLION TROOPS milestone for the Maine Greeters even that more impressive They have dedicated the last 9 years of their life to make sure all troops transiting Bangor International Airport are greeted at the most insane times of the day and night, to make sure we know that the oath we took to support and defend, serve and protect, is appreciated. What kinds of people greet plane loads of soldiers at all hours of the day and night, for nine years straight? Not even Vietnam, Korea, World War I or II lasted that long.
Arguably, with less than one half (½) of one percent of the entire US population currently serving in the military (Active, Reserve and National Guard), it is hard for many ordinary people to comprehend that kind of commitment. With those kinds of numbers it is easy to understand why most people simply move on with their lives and forget that our nation continues to place our finest men and women in harms way. Less than 8% of our current population has ever served in the armed services, and only 3% of those ever saw combat and that number grows smaller each day as we lose a growing number of our greatest generation. But many of the Maine Greeters were former service members themselves or proud spouses honoring their loved ones’ service.
My most recent deployment in 2008 to Afghanistan had us stopping in Maine (my first exposure to these fine Americans) on the way overseas for a one year tour. Our plane of over 250 soldiers departed Fort Benning, GA on a contract flight and landed at Bangor International Airport at 2AM for refueling and then re-boarding for our next stop in Leipzig, Germany (no great welcome there, as we were herded into an abandoned terminal) before arriving at the Theater Deployment Center in Kuwait where all soldiers basically hitchhike on military aircraft to Afghanistan or Iraq depending on what flights are available.
When we arrived in Maine it was only a few hours into our flight and we were told we must deplane for refueling. We filed off the plane, half asleep and wishing we could have stayed sleeping in our seats. As we entered the terminal, a line of 20 or so of what I would call ordinary citizens, the now famous Maine Greeters, stood side by side, proudly wearing their red, white and blue apparel or obligatory service hat or t-shirt, branding them proud former veterans of wars past. These seniors of all ages applauded and cheered as we walked into the terminal (I say again at 2AM). Each one of the greeters shook our hands and even hugged us – all 250 soldiers. They never tired; each hug and squeeze was as strong and filled with love as the first. It was the most incredible display of dedicated support one could imagine, and it made even the toughest, most battle hardened soldiers eyes tear up with pride. A humbling and heartwarming experience for everyone who walks into that terminal.
What these volunteers do means the world to our nation’s warriors. It means that people are thinking of them, praying for them, appreciating the sacrifice of service and time away from family and life. I personally cannot tell you how much it meant to me, particularly as a soldier going off to war. Fellow Veterans there, like Bill and Jerry, chased our troops around the airport encouraging all to make that late night call, even though it was almost certain to wake our loved ones up. They would not take “no” for an answer, and not knowing when the next time we would even get to a phone, many made the call. I was handed a cell phone and was able to call home one last time. My Mom and Dad, both very experienced now at multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and crazy late night calls, were thrilled for me as I told them the amazing greeting we had received. I described the commotion around me, old veterans laughing and joking with our youngest troops, only 9-10 years old when the attacks of September 11th happened. There is a camaraderie that binds all service members to each other, from all generations, and all wars – you can look into their eyes, know what they endured and be bound forever. I remember Joan, busy behind the counter keeping the cookie plates and candy jars full. Once she realized we were going overseas and not headed home, she refused to leave the safety of the counter, except to give a hug or two. She told me she never knows what to say to the troops when we are leaving and just like any mother or grandmother, worries too much. What she and the other greeters don’t realize is that their loving welcome, heartfelt hugs and spirited send off, say more than any words ever could. I personally believe my parents, especially my mom, were happy to know that their soldier got one last hug from equally proud Americans before I left the USA.
I want everyone to know that the Maine Greeters have inspired a nation. There are many volunteers (not as organized or famous now, as Maine) but still ordinary citizens who go to different airports to welcome our troops home. These veterans and volunteers greet our troops with pride and purpose, unselfishly giving up their personal time by continuing to serve, by serving our troops memories that will last a lifetime, and of course the all important donuts, cookies, candy and coffee, the energy elixirs for tired soldiers!
Everyone calls the troops heroes, but we feel it is just our generation’s time to serve and take on the mission to protect this great country. I am not hoping for any future wars, but I certainly hope that I have the kind of energy and spirit in my 70’s, 80’s and 90’s to greet the troops as the Maine Greeters. So when people ask? No, we are not Heroes, but we were greeted by some!!
To all the Main Greeters and all those Americans who take the time to say thank you……HOOAHHHH!!
by Kate van Auken (LTC-USAR) from Harrisburg, PA