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How Mainers greet troops: hugs, fudge and 41 cellphones

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 24, 2006


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

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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.

"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.