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COLUMN ONE

Welcome Stop for Warriors

Locals in Bangor, Maine, are on a mission to greet every military plane, at any time, in any weather. Their tally so far: 200,000 troops.

April 20, 2005|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

BANGOR, Maine — Tired and bleary-eyed, Marines of the 1st Battalion, 7th Regiment, based at Twentynine Palms, Calif., were finally back on U.S. soil after seven months on the front lines in Iraq.

But they were still many miles and hours from their families and the homecoming they longed for. Their officers told them they would be on the ground for 60 to 90 minutes while their chartered plane was refueled.

So they disembarked and began walking through the airport terminal corridor to a small waiting room.

That's when they heard the applause.

Lining the hall and clapping were dozens of Bangor residents who have set a daunting task for themselves: They want every Marine, soldier, sailor and airman returning through the tiny international airport here to get a hero's welcome.

Even if the planes arrive in the middle of the night or a blizzard, they are there.

Composed mostly from the generation that served in World War II and Korea, they call themselves the Maine Troop Greeters. They have met every flight bringing troops home from Iraq for nearly two years -- more than 1,000 flights and nearly 200,000 troops.

"Here they come. Everybody get ready," said Joyce Goodwin, 71, her voice full of excitement, undiminished by the hundreds of times she has shown up to embrace the returning troops.

As dozens more Marines came down the corridor, the applause grew louder and was accompanied by handshakes, hugs, and a stream of well wishes: "Welcome home." "Thank you for your service." "God bless you." "Thank you for everything."

Faces brightened. Grouchiness disappeared. Greeters and Marines alike began taking photographs. The Marines were directed down a corridor decorated with American flags and red, white and blue posters to cellphones for free calls to family members.

They found a table with cookies and candies. Plates of homemade fudge circulated.

"Welcome home, gunny," said Al Dall, 74, who served in the Marines during the Korean War, as he thrust his hand at a startled Gunnery Sgt. Edward Parsons, 31, of Shelby, N.C.

"This is incredible," Parsons said. "Now I know I'm really back in the world."

The greeters line the corridor both as the troops arrive and then, minutes later, as they return to their planes to continue their journeys to Fort Hood, Camp Pendleton and other Army and Marine Corps bases.

The airport gift store opens early. T-shirts saying "I Love Maine" are popular. So are adult magazines. The store takes military scrip from troops low on cash, even though there is no way for the store to get reimbursed.

The airport bar does a brisk business, selling Budweiser at $3 a bottle. Some officers have rules against their troops consuming alcohol before a flight; the commanding officer of this battalion had no such restriction, and the bar was full of Marines laughing, singing, and joking.

"We appreciate everything you've done for us," said Bud Tower, an Air Force veteran, who, at 58, considers himself "a kid" among the other greeters.

Kay Lebowitz, 89, has such severe arthritis that she cannot shake hands. So she hugs every Marine and soldier she can. Some of the larger, more exuberant troops lift her off the ground.

"Many of them tell me they can't wait to see their grandmother," she said. "That's what I am: a substitute grandmother."

The greeters also turn out for flights headed to Iraq, but those are somber occasions. The Marines on this flight were returning from a lawless stretch of desert along the Syrian border, where they dodged roadside bombs and sniper fire on a daily basis.

"When the flights are going over, it's heart-breaking," Lebowitz said. "But when they're coming home, it's heart-warming."

The core of the Maine Troop Greeters is a dedicated group of about 30 residents who have a highly developed "telephone tree" to get the word out about impending arrivals. Their numbers swell on weekends when particular brigades are due back, such as local National Guard units. Families with young children join in.

Most of the greeters support the U.S. mission in Iraq, but their goal is historic, not political. Discussion of politics is banned. The greeters don't want America to repeat what they consider a shameful episode in history: the indifference, even hostility, that the public displayed to troops returning from Vietnam.

"I think there's a lot of collective guilt about the '60s," said greeter Dusty Fisher, 63, a retired high school history teacher now serving in the state Legislature.

The airport in this city of 31,000 has a long runway and is a refueling stop for many overseas troop flights. The terminal is a tidy, homey, two-story structure with skylights and floor-to-ceiling windows that let in copious light.

Above the waiting room, a banner reads, "Maine. The Way Life Should Be."

Once the troops find seats, the greeters fan out.

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