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A touch of home

At Bangor's airport, the gateway back for many troops, greeters make sure they get the warmest of welcomes

By David Filipov
Globe Staff / May 24, 2009
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BANGOR - As a chaplain in the US Army's First Cavalry Division, Captain Edward Tolliver just spent nearly a year in Iraq as the guy to whom soldiers came for advice, comfort, or just a welcome face. But on a recent May evening in Bangor International Airport, Tolliver was the one receiving the comforting embrace.

Moments after the chaplain had landed on American soil for the first time in 11 months, Kay Lebowitz, 93, spotted Tolliver tucking into a Maine lobster roll. She rushed over, wrapped him in her firm hug, told him she was proud of him, and added, as she has been saying to troops in this airport almost every day for the past six years: "Welcome to Bangor!"

America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have receded into the background of a country troubled by domestic economic matters. Yellow ribbons have largely disappeared from trees. Support-our-troops magnets have disappeared from most cars. And men and women in uniform filter through many airports unnoticed.

Not in Bangor, the easternmost major US airport, and a stop for planes transporting troops to and from both war zones. Here, Lebowitz and a diehard band of volunteers have made it their business to greet every single soldier, Marine, sailor, and airman or woman who passes through the gates for the layover. Since 2003, when the Maine Troop Greeters, as they call themselves, began their vigil, they calculate that they have cheered, chatted up, and shaken the hands of more than 841,000 troops.

Some of the greeters are World War II veterans who want the current troops to experience the kind of welcome they received more than 60 years ago. Some are Vietnam veterans who want to ensure that today's active servicemen and women are spared the indifferent, and often angry, welcome some of them endured when they touched down on US soil. Some are military parents seeking to compensate for the longing they feel for their deployed son or daughter. And some, like Lebowitz, greet the troops simply because they feel it is the right thing to do.

"Isn't it wonderful that so many people are willing to take the chance to put themselves in harm's way and to protect this country?" said Lebowitz, a former state representative who has spent much of her life in public service and still volunteers for several nonprofit groups. She drives to the airport (79 years behind the wheel without so much as a parking ticket), where she circles the waiting area and tries to hug everyone in uniform she sees. "I want them to know that I admire them so much."

The feeling is mutual.

The troop greeters, Tolliver said, help "to remind you that people still appreciate you."

The greeters have been recognized with numerous civic proclamations and awards, and their efforts have been chronicled in "The Way We Get By," a widely praised documentary film.

The greeters do not consider their mission political and avoid discussing with the troops their opinions about the wars, religion, or any other potentially controversial subject.

Originally a spontaneous movement that started in 1991 during the first Gulf War and resumed in 2003, the group has become more organized. They recently applied for nonprofit status. They have a board of directors. The 240 members carry identification cards. They have a budget. (Some $12,000 in donations to buy candy and snacks for the troops.) They have rules. (For example, baskets of homemade goods have been replaced by safely sealed foods.)

"We represent the mothers and the fathers and the sisters and the brothers who can't be here to see their soldier off or welcome him back to the US," said Tom Kohl, 64, chairman of the greeter's board of directors, who served in Vietnam from 1970 to 1971. "We're there to make them comfortable and let them know somebody cares,"

Because the schedule of flights carrying troops fluctuates, greeters often learn the exact arrival time only a few hours in advance.

Calls go out - often in the wee hours of the morning - and the greeters who can make it assemble. Sometimes one or two show up; sometimes two dozen or more. Someone is there for "99.99 percent of the flights," said Kohl.

The greeters stand in a line, clapping in rhythm as the troops enter the domestic terminal, shaking each one's hand. Some greeters cheer, but over the years they have ruled out whistling or whooping.

"For people with hearing aids, it's like a sonic boom," said Cathy Czarnecki, who joined the greeters in 2004 to cope during her son's 15-month deployment in Iraq with a Maine Army Reserve unit.

The greeters offer goodies, disposable shaving kits, and free use of cellular phones donated by telephone companies. The troops can kick back in a room the greeters have decked out with thousands of stickers, coins, and patches collected from units passing through. They can make fun of the greeters' accents ("I'm gonna go to Bah Hahbah to get some lobstah," Tolliver intoned, as Czarnecki laughed with glee.) They can laugh at the greeters' antics.

"Guys and gals going over, we try to get them to relax, and if that means acting like a silly fool, we'll do that," Czarnecki said, moments before she ran across the greeters' room, whoopie pie in hand, roaring "Chocolate hamburger!!!" to the delight of a Marine headed for his first deployment to Afghanistan.

For returning troops, sometimes the greeters facilitate joyous reunions by phone.

Czarnecki recalled the serviceman who reached his wife in Colorado just as she was giving birth to their baby, and was able to talk to her as their child was born.

Sometimes, the greeters are there to console troops who receive miserable news. Lebowitz recalls the day when a returning soldier called his wife, only to find out that she had left with another man.

"That was a killer," Lebowitz recalled.

More often, the mood is mixed.

Just after 6 on a recent morning, Lance Corporal Griffin Sutherland of the Third Marine Regiment, based in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, chuckled over a stack of photographs the greeters have compiled to introduce troops to their corner of the country: 217-inch snowdrifts, farmers harnessing moose to lug timber, black bears - that sort of thing.

Later, Sutherland, whose unit was deploying to Afghanistan, lingered over a notebook the greeters keep in a quiet spot just outside their bustling room. Called "Fallen Heroes," it contains little notes, memorabilia, and pictures of men and women killed overseas, contributed by their comrades.

"There were a few of the guys we lost last time," Sutherland said softly, referring to his unit's previous deployment, in Iraq.

This is where the veterans, easily identifiable by their hats adorned with service medals, come in. Troops can talk to Don Mattson, 74, who served on river boats in Vietnam between 1968 and 1970. He knows about loss: He described surviving an attack on his boat that killed four fellow crewmen.

"But we don't talk about that to the young guys," he said. "We reassure them that even if you're going to a bad place, you can get through this."

David Filipov can be reached at filipov@globe.com.