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America Supports You: Maine Group Greets Troops

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 29, 2005 – For the Maine Troop Greeters, it's all about expressing appreciation.

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Fran Zelz, left, John Buckingham, in the red Marine Corps sweatshirt, and Bud Tower lead other greeters in welcoming troops home at Bangor International Airport in Maine. Photo courtesy of Diana Legge

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Since thousands of people welcomed the first Gulf War veterans who arrived at Bangor International Airport just over 14 years ago, the greeters have met nearly 1,000 flights bringing troops to or from war zones.

As of March 22, 968 flights with a total of 177,457 troops and two military working dogs have been welcomed by the Maine Troop Greeters, said group member Evelyn Bradman.

The core of about 75-80 greeters began to solidify about two years ago, according to Dee Winthrop-Denning, designer and maintainer of the group's Web site and a greeter herself. Before that, when flight arrivals were published in the local newspapers, there were large groups to greet the few flights that came in.

"The first three flights of troops arrived at Bangor International Airport on March 9, 1991, to a warm welcome home from hundreds of people who had gathered at the airport," said Winthrop-Denning. "There was no formal 'greeter' organization -- just a large number of people from all walks of life ... gathered with one common goal: to show support for our troops and to welcome them home."

By the time flights started passing through Bangor en route to or returning from Iraq and Afghanistan in May 2003, everything had changed, Winthrop-Denning said. That's when, for security reasons, it became necessary for the effort to be coordinated.

Airport officials, the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce and local veterans organizations took the lead and made it possible for the Maine Troop Greeters to do what they do best.

And the system established then, Winthrop-Denning said, continues to work well for greeting as few as 90 or as many as 300 servicemembers in a day. The number can vary, and occasionally there are no flights to meet for a day or two, according to Olive S. Volk, another greeter.

But, she said, every military flight is met unless the group has not been notified of a flight or the passengers are held in the international lounge.

And though Volk said that there are no individual stars in the Maine Troop Greeters, just a "giant ball of sun," the group gives deference to 82-year-old Bill Knight as an elder greeter and World War II veteran. They make sure he is first in line to greet the troops as they enter the airport.

Othergreeters, like Knight, are former military members, and some come from military families or have children serving. And some, Winthrop-Denning said, have no military connection at all.

"They just have very big hearts, love their country very much and the men and women who are defending it," she said.

But the greeters get something out of the experience too.

"The emotional gratification derived from seeing the pleasure (the troops) are experiencing knowing that someone cares about them," is the best part of meeting the troops, said Bud Tower, another of the core group of greeters.

Some see it as a good way of showing the troops that America supports them.

"When our troops leave through BIA, this is the last stop for them on American soil," Volk said. "They go to war knowing that their family and friends support them but when they leave here, they also carry the knowledge that total strangers truly appreciate their service and support them completely."

Volk added that every troop is a hero and deserves a hero's welcome. That's why she feels what the group does is so important.

"Troop greeters have a lot of different opinions about the war. However, regardless or whether or not we support the war, we are all united in our support for the men and women of our military," she said. "If we gained nothing else from the Vietnam experience, hopefully, we have learned how to take care of our military men and women.

"Let no military person ever step back onto American soil to an ungrateful nation. We can assure you that will never happen in Bangor, Maine."

The group members see their mission as critical and perform it as such, often going above and beyond the necessary. Logging more than 1,500 hours spent meeting with the troops on their way through Bangor, the greeters also make sure they have refreshments available in the "troop room" at the airport. There, troops can sign a register as a record of their stop and peruse photos and mementos from previous meet-and-greet sessions.

Another opportunity the greeters provide for the troops is the Phone Home Program. Harry Rideout, a greeter, approached the corporate office of Unicel, which provides wireless service to much of Maine, to inquire about purchasing a cell phone with a discounted rate for the troops to use to call home one last time before going overseas. The company's senior marketing coordinator, Ryann Tash, saw that he left with about a dozen phones to use free of charge.

To date, incoming and outgoing troops have used 1,054,071 minutes on 40 phones, Winthrop-Denning said.

Tash told Winthrop-Denning that the phones are the company's way of saying "thank you" to the troops for all that they do and the risks that they take.

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America Supports You

Click photo for screen-resolution imageKay Lebowitz, known as Miss Kay to servicemembers passing through Bangor International Airport in Maine, is a dedicated troop greeter who brings a smile to the face of all who come in contact with her, fellow greeters said. Photo courtesy of Diana Legge  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageMilitary working dog Bastar makes friends with visiting greeter Carroll Burke from Vancouver, British Columbia, while his military partner makes a phone call at Bangor International Airport in Maine. The Maine Greeters have met nearly 1,000 aircraft taking troops to and from war zones. Photo courtesy of Diana Legge  
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