They’ve become famous among the soldiers — over 900,000 to date — who have passed through the airport in Bangor, Maine, on their way to and from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among their neighbors, they’ve become a source of pride. To a nation wrestling with the politics behind the wars, they’re an inspiration. They are the “troop greeters” of Bangor, an intrepid group of retired and elderly citizens who have taken it upon themselves to greet every troop plane arriving or departing Bangor, which is the last and first piece of U.S. soil many GIs will see before and after their deployments.
The opening scenes of The Way We Get By makes clear why the troop greeters are surefire morale boosters for a war-burdened nation. Regardless of their personal views about the wars’ politics, the greeters, some of them veterans, turn out at all hours of the day and night to show their respect for the soldiers’ willingness to make sacrifices for the nation.
Bill Knight talking with a female soldier at the airport.
The Way We Get By takes a look behind the hearty smiles, handshakes, heartfelt thanks and free cookies and cell phones the greeters bring to the airport, and discovers a world in which the seniors are engaged in their own struggles with aging, disease, loneliness, memories of war and personal loss. The film discovers a remarkable symbiosis between the soldiers’ fighting mission and the greeters’ fight to overcome pain, fatigue and depression in making sure no soldier departs or returns without thanks.
The film focuses on three of the most dedicated troop greeters. At 87, cantankerous Bill Knight is the oldest. A World War II veteran, he has the most straightforward patriotic view of the new conflicts. He sees today’s soldiers as fighting the wars of the United States, just as he did in North Africa in the 1940s, and he swears they won’t be neglected, as he believes Vietnam vets were. Joan Gaudet, age 76 and as grandmotherly as a grandmother can be, has greater doubts about the wisdom of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, she has a wrenching personal stake in the wars: Her granddaughter and grandson are set to deploy to Iraq. Avuncular and something of a loner, Jerry Mundy, age 74, shares Joan’s doubts about the wars. But he supports the troops and grieves for the parents of those who don’t return, recalling his own unbearable pain at losing a son at an early age.
Yet different temperaments, experiences and political outlooks turn out not to be the only remarkable things about the three elderly Americans spotlighted in The Way We Get By. Even more notable is the daily drama shared by all three in meeting their commitment to be at the airport day in and day out. Bill Knight has been diagnosed with prostate cancer, which has spread. He’s been given treatment, but at his age, he doesn’t figure he has much time left. Increasingly infirm and unable to pay his bills since his wife died, he feels his grip on an orderly life slipping away. Bill nonetheless shows up to meet the troops with all the military precision he can muster. In fact, on the day he learned he had cancer, Bill was the first greeter to arrive at the airport.
Joan Gaudet has had three knee operations, which have forced her to use a walker. She’s developed an intense fear of falling during Bangor’s icy winters. Living alone after having raised eight kids (including filmmaker Aron Gaudet), Joan was afraid to go out at night or when the weather was bad. Then she discovered troop greeting, which required her to be on call whenever the planes arrived or departed — something that happened with increasing regularity as the wars heated up. Time and again, Joan overcomes near-constant pain — and her fears — to get to the airport whatever the conditions. So exhilarating does she find the effort that she describes it as a kind of addiction. The one thing Joan finds most difficult to overcome is her urge to cry as she says goodbye to troops headed for the war zones. Realizing this would be distressing for the soldiers, she wisely reserves her emotions for those returning.
Jerry Mundy has unexplained heart problems, which are sometimes aggravated by the hours he pulls at the airport, and which put him in the hospital during the filming of The Way We Get By. He’s a congenial man, but a lonely one; his solitude is perhaps rooted in the sudden loss of his 10-year-old son years ago. The thought of the soldiers who don’t return to their families brings back those memories. His best friend is his dog, Flannagan, and most days the two sit in Jerry’s truck outside the airport, watching for arriving military planes. If Jerry is fast enough, he can be inside the airport before a plane’s wheels touch the ground. His warm, good humor and the free cell phone calls he offers the soldiers bring instant smiles to the soldiers’ faces. These small acts help him cope with the memory of his loss and a growing sense of his own mortality.
All three seniors share the same contradictory feeling that, for all that they want every soldier to come home for good, they’re not sure what they would do without the sense of purpose that troop greeting has given them. With simple candor, Bill, Joan and Jerry take stock of their lives and anguish over the use they still might have in this world. The loss of that usefulness is what scares them most of all. Their ruminations on aging, failing health, loneliness and death are at the core of the film’s drama. Though Bill, Joan and Jerry’s appearances at the airport are predictable, The Way We Get By is full of suspense as it follows how they cope with the “tribulations,” as Jerry calls them, that life has sent their way.
“This is a very personal story to me,” says director Aron Gaudet. “Witnessing firsthand how my mother’s life changed in such positive ways, while at the same time touching the lives of troops from all over the country, convinced me this was a story that could inspire people. The moment I saw the Maine troop greeters welcome home a plane full of soldiers and Marines returning from Iraq, I knew it could be a movie. The moment I met Bill Knight and Jerry Mundy, I knew it could be something more than a movie.”
He continues, “I knew it could be a way to show the everyday struggles of senior citizens and an inspirational story of how these three seniors use a simple handshake to change their lives, and the lives of the 900,000-plus troops they’ve greeted.”
The Way We Get By has become even more personal for Aron, who will wed the film’s producer, Gita Pullapilly, in October 2009.
The Way We Get By is co-production of Dungby Productions and ITVS in association with WGBH and Maine Public Broadcasting Network (MPBN) with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).