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NONFICTION FILM

The Maine Troop Greeters' story goes well beyond a warm welcome

They have kept their vow, but as 'The Way We Get By' shows, they have their own challenges.

August 09, 2009|Tony Perry

When Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly went to Bangor, Maine, in late 2004 to film the story of the Maine Troop Greeters, they figured it would be a fairly speedy project to document.

As television journalists from competing stations in Grand Rapids, Mich., they were accustomed to working quick: some interviewing, some filming and then some punchy editing.

Besides, Gaudet already knew the basic story: His mother was one of the Troop Greeters, a band of older residents who have vowed to meet and honor every contingent of U.S. military personnel coming through the Bangor airport on their way to Iraq or Afghanistan or on their way home from those war zones.

But when Gaudet and Pullapilly went to the homes of two of the greeters -- former Marine Jerry Mundy and retired Navy veteran Bill Knight -- their plans changed.

"We realized there is so much more to the story than what was happening at the airport," said Pullapilly.

During repeated visits to Bangor over the next three years, the filmmakers shot 300 hours of film and watched as the Troop Greeters cheered and embraced thousands of soldiers and Marines. (Bangor is a major refueling spot for military planes.)

The result is the 84-minute documentary "The Way We Get By," which has been well received at several festivals and opens Friday at Laemmle Music Hall in Los Angeles.

The film combines the poignancy of the airport scenes and the personal battles of Knight, now 87, Mundy, 74, and Joan Gaudet, 76, with the loneliness, money issues and medical problems that come with aging.

"The Way We Get By" is there as Knight learns he has advanced prostate cancer, Mundy grieves over the death of his dog and Joan Gaudet explains the pain of watching the troops leave, knowing that some will never return. When her granddaughter, Amy, a helicopter pilot, is ordered to Iraq, the pain intensifies.

The Troop Greeters are steadfastly nonpolitical. As a group, they neither support nor oppose U.S. foreign policy. But they want to erase what they feel is a shameful episode of the Vietnam War: the indifference, even hostility, directed at returning veterans.

"The rule of the Troop Greeters is: Leave politics at the door," said Aron Gaudet. "We tried to give the movie the same rule."

Aron Gaudet, 35, was the director, editor and writer. Pullapilly, 31, acted as producer. Her voice can be heard occasionally asking probing questions. There is no narration.

Without a budget or a sponsor, making an independent film is a travail. But quitting was not an option. "The troops are not quitting, the Troop Greeters are not quitting," said Gaudet. "How could we quit?"

The team's hope is that other artsy movie houses will show interest once word of the effort spreads.

Gaudet and Pullapilly have left their jobs in Grand Rapids. With making and marketing their film, they have not had time to decide on their next project -- with one exception: They plan to be married in October.

As journalists, the documentarians remained neutral observers. But Gaudet allows a personal comment about his mother hiding her fears on the day Amy left for Iraq.

"She did a good job on deployment day," he said.

--

tony.perry@latimes.com

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