Welcome Stop For Warriors
Los Angeles Times - April 20, 2005 - Pg. 1
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.
By 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
returning through the tiny international airport here to get a hero's
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
They found a table with cookies and candies. Plates of homemade fudge
"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
"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
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.
Phillip Eckert, 70, a bantam-sized ex-Marine with an outsized personality,
likes to talk about the "old Corps" and tell stories of tough-as-nails sergeants
and crazy-brave officers he knew from Korea. He wears a red sweatshirt that
says, "Not As Lean, Not as Mean, But Still A Marine."
Eckert leads Marines in raspy versions of the Marine hymn. He does his
drill-instructor imitation: "move it, Move It, MOVE IT," he said in a mock-urgent
"I whoop and holler at the troops, and they seem to like it, I guess," he
Jerry Mundy, 69, also a former Marine, likes to dispense mildly salty jokes.
"My lady friend just bought us one of those king-size beds," he said.
"Trouble is that at my age, after I finally find her, I forget what for."
Others try a quieter approach. Dall makes himself available if the troops
want to talk about the traumas of combat.
"I've been there, so I know what they've gone through," he said. "I say,
'Forget me, this is your time.' I'm here if you need me."
Like the Marines, the
greeters have had casualties. Four have died since
the group started meeting the
planes in May 2003.
Marjorie Dean suffered a fatal heart seizure while she and her husband, Bill,
were on their way to meet a late-night flight a year ago. She was 79.
Goodwin missed three days of flights when she was in the hospital for heart
"I felt like I was in withdrawal," she said. "It was awful not being able to
be here for the boys."
Bill Knight, 83, one of the group's organizers, came to the airport just
hours after his doctor told him that he has advanced prostate cancer. "It never
occurred to me not to come," said Knight, who served in the Army and Navy for
Francis Zelz, 81, who served in the Navy during World War II, said it is a
point of pride to respond even with only a few minutes notice. Many of the
greeters were part of a similar welcome-home effort during the Persian Gulf War.
"You get a call at 3 a.m. about a flight in 30 minutes, and you think about
staying in bed," Zelz said. "Then you realize, no, I can't do that. That
wouldn't be right."
On one window of the greeters' office at the end of the corridor are hundreds
of photographs of Marines and soldiers killed in Iraq taken from newspaper
Inevitably, troops drift toward the window and search for their buddies.
Sometimes they scribble small notes of remembrance next to the photos.
The 1st Battalion, 7th Regiment suffered 15 dead and 86 wounded. The Marines
were left alone to search for their buddies' photos.
"There's Wilt," said a Marine pointing to one of Lance Cpl. Nicholas Wilt,
23, of Tampa, Fla.
"There's Rowe," said another, a reference to Capt. Alan Rowe, 35, of
After several long and silent minutes, Staff Sgt. Larry Long, 31, of Clovis,
N.M., finally found the photo he was searching for: Pfc. Ryan Cox, 19, of
"He was a good Marine, a hard-charger," Long said with a catch in his voice.
"He would have been a good squad leader."
Navy chaplain Lt. Cmdr. Robert White, returning home with the Marine unit to
which he was assigned, said the Bangor welcome may prove therapeutic.
"They need to feel good about themselves and what they've been through,"
Marine Lt. David Tumanjan, 24, of Boise, Idaho, said the Bangor greeting is
both humbling and gratifying. "It shows us that what we did wasn't in vain," he
The greeters say their payoff is seeing the surprise and smiles on the faces
of the troops. "Every flight coming home makes it like Christmas Eve," Tower
Don Guptill, 71, who served in the Army in Korea, listened as an enlisted
Marine, his eyes fixed on the carpet, talked quietly about being wounded three
As the call came over the loudspeaker to return to the plane, the young
Marine reluctantly pulled something from his back pocket. It was his Purple Heart.
"He said he was embarrassed to wear it," Guptill said. "I told him: 'You wear
it. You earned it. You wear it for all the guys who didn't make it home.' "
The Marines were barely gone when the Maine Troop Greeters began preparing
for the next flight. "It's going to be a busy day for us," said Bill Dean, 70,
an Army veteran. "That feels good."
Back to : WW2 Pacific or WWT
Also see North Platt Canteen of WW2.
7May05 -- I hoped this story was true, it brought moisture to my eyes, and found it on the LA Times website; so here it is.
Web search for Maine Troop Greeters for more.