How Mainers greet troops: hugs, fudge and 41 cellphones

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It is well after dinnertime for Kay Lebowitz, but she hardly notices - she has hundreds of American troops to greet.

Here at Bangor International Airport, she bustles about, sliding next to them at the snack bar. "I always ask them if they have children," she says. "They love to talk about their babies."

A planeload of US Marines, heading to Iraq, files in line to board. She strives to hug all 263 of them. "See you on the way back," she tells them.

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"Kay, let 'em go," shouts a fellow volunteer at the front of the queue. "You're holding up the line." But the 90-year-old hardly notices that, either.

Ms. Lebowitz is a member of the Maine Troop Greeters, a community group that has dutifully gathered at this tiny airport in central Maine since May 2003. At the close of this night last Tuesday, the group had tallied 1,403 flights, filled with 260,927 men and women in uniform.

Of the dozens who show up regularly, many are veterans from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. But local residents with no formal military connections like Lebowitz have joined their ranks, too. They assemble whether it's morning or midnight, whether an important figurehead is in town - like Bill Clinton, who appeared this month - or whether there are more greeters than soldiers scheduled to arrive.

They first formed during the Gulf War. This time, the job is different, as months have become years. Some are driven by a sense of patriotism; others by volunteerism. Above all, they say they are determined not to repeat the icy welcome that Vietnam veterans received 30 years ago.

"We made up our minds that we would never let that happen again, if we could help it," says Bill Knight, a veteran of World War II and Vietnam, who relocated from his farm 30 miles away to a trailer home four miles from the airport so that midnight arrivals would not be so daunting.

Bangor International Airport was not always primarily used by US military planes to refuel and change flight crews. It used to be a bustling international stopover for European charter flights, says Heidi Suletzki, the supervisor for passenger services. But when longer-range jetliners were built, the need for stops en route diminished. Today, it's where many returning troops first touch US soil, or where departing soldiers say their last goodbyes.

On this particular night, 936 troops - some heading to Iraq; others heading home - stride down a jetway feeding into the airport lobby, where greeters line them on either side. This night, 35 of them show up about 6:30 p.m., and few have left by the time the last plane lands 3-1/2 hours later.

Big hugs - and big grins

When the planes arrive, greeters yell to one another to get ready, bursting into cheers and thunderous clapping. The clamor attracts the notice of two passengers on domestic flights, who come over to see what's going on. They soon join the handshaking, back-patting, and hugging.

"See you on the way back," the greeters say to those leaving. "We'll be waiting for you." To those coming back: "Welcome home. Thank you so much for your service." Some troops can't hide big grins as they shuffle through the greeters' embraces; others seem self-conscious. And some run through the crowd, giving out high-fives to their boosters.

In all, the airport's sleepy lobby is transformed, with Marines, Navy, Air Force, and Army soldiers all waiting to reboard, continuing their journeys home or to Iraq.

One Marine captain, who had flown through Bangor the year before, pulls out his digital camera to post the experience on his blog.

"It's unbelievable," says Capt. Jon Bonar, who is heading to Iraq to advise its fledgling military. "These are the same people I saw a year ago. Some of them are even in the same sweatshirts."

The troops pack into the Maine Troop greeters "office," an old duty-free room decorated with American flags and photos of other units coming through. Many head right to a cellphone counter: At any given time, there are 41 charging on the wall. Tables are stacked with Twizzlers and Dubble Bubble gum, cookies and, on most days, homemade fudge.

Across the country, troops receive hearty welcomes from other volunteer groups. At airports in Dallas, Atlanta, and Baltimore, where troops on two-week leaves fly, veterans and other community members hand out candy and phone cards. Much of the work is organized through local Veterans of Foreign Wars and the United Service Organizations.

Troops here say the Maine Troop greeters have become almost legendary among rank and file. US Army Spec. Matthew Hardee, who was on his way back from Iraq, says he was hoping his plane would fly through Bangor. "It's awesome, especially since they are guys who were doing the same thing 40 and 50 years ago," he says. "Some other guys didn't have anything like this. They had to go searching for a payphone."

When an incoming flight is confirmed, the passenger services department calls Mr. Knight, who carries a tentative weekly schedule in his shirt pocket. He calls a half dozen people to set off a phone tree.

He never had a cellphone before this, but he couldn't do his job without it now - proved by a $266 bill two months ago.

Betty Buckingham and her husband, John have met planes at all hours. "It brings such a warm feeling to your heart," Ms. Buckingham says. "Once you do it once, it's habit forming."

Politics off-limits

Whether night or day, one topic is always off-limits. "We don't bring politics to what we do here, we try not to talk about it," says Pete Perry, who works full-time as a plane mechanic, and volunteers at the airport whenever he can. Last week, he met some 20 flights.

For the airport staff, emotions still run high, even after nearly 1,500 flights. "I still get choked up when I see them," says Ms. Suletzki. "When we feel reluctant to come in at 2 a.m., I look at [the greeters] and they have a smile on their faces."

As Lebowitz puts it: "Work? This isn't work. Well, I guess my arms hurt a little bit," she says, flapping them as if she were doing the chicken dance. "This is fun."

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