(HEROES) WELCOMED AT EVERY FLIGHT

By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times, April 26, 2005
Forwarded by Jerry D. Johnson

BANGOR, Maine - Tired and bleary-eyed, Marines of the 1st Battalion, 7th Regiment, based at Twenty Nine Palms, Calif., were finally back on U.S. soil after seven months in Iraq. But they were still 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 jetliner was refueled, so they disembarked and began walking through the airport corridor to a small waiting room.

Then 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.

The airport in this city of 31,000 has a long runway and is the first stop for many overseas military troop flights. Even if the planes arrive in the middle of the night or during a blizzard, the greeters are there. Made up 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 the 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 cell phones 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 as they return to their planes to continue their journeys. Kay Lebowitz, 89, has such severe arthritis that she cannot shake hands. So she hugs every Marine and soldier she can. “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 outbound flights to Iraq, but those are somber occasions. “When the flights are going over, it's heartbreaking,” Lebowitz said. “But when they're coming home, it's heartwarming.”

The core of the Maine Troop Greeters is a dedicated group of about 30 people who have a “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 purpose is 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.

Francis Zelz, 81, who served in the Navy during World War II, said it is a point of pride to respond even when the call comes with only a few minutes notice. “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.”

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 said.

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,” said Bud Tower, an Air Force veteran, who, at age 58, considers himself “a kid” among the other greeters.

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 times. 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.' “