Maine Troop Greeters Boost Morale For American GIs
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
On call 24 hours a day for the past five years, a group of senior citizens has made history by greeting more than 900,000 American troops at a tiny airport in Bangor, Maine. "The Way We Get By," a film directed by Aron Gaudet and produced by Gita Pullapilly, is an intimate look at three of these greeters as they confront the universal losses that come with aging and rediscover their reason for living. Also, the USO San Diego talks about how it is organizing local residents to greet U.S. service men and women returning from war.
An online interactive resource that extends and encourages that heartfelt process begun by the Greeters of welcoming home U.S. troops. A unique aspect of the online resource, however, is that it creates a welcoming space for those seeking to support all U.S. Vets—from those who served in the second World War to those returning from the current wars.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. San Diego has a tradition of great homecomings for Navy sailors returning from overseas. Families and friends cheer as the ship decks are lined with crew members in full uniform, waving, smiling knowing they are back home in the USA. But members of other branches of the military often set foot back on U.S. soil without much fanfare. They arrive in an airport in a strange town, and that's about it. Things are different, though, in Bangor, Maine where hundreds of thousands of Marines and Army personnel return from Iraq and Afghanistan. They are greeted by a group of hearty volunteers, some of whom we meet in a new documentary called “The Way We Get By.” It airs tonight on KPBS Television, and with me to discuss the film are my guests. Aron Gaudet, he’s the director of “The Way We Get By.” Aron, welcome to These Days.
ARON GAUDET (Director): Thanks. Thanks for having me.
CAVANAUGH: And also joining me is retired Sgt. Major Bobby Woods. He’s Director of the San Diego USO, Neil Ash Airport Center at Lindbergh Field. And, Bobby, welcome.
SGT. MAJOR BOBBY WOODS (Director, San Diego USO, Neil Ash Airport Center): Thank you very much. It’s a honor to be here.
CAVANAUGH: Well, Aron, I want to start out with you. Well, first of all, I’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. I’m wondering if anyone listening knows someone who flew through Bangor and met the Maine Troop Greeters. If you do, please give us a call. Or do you have a story of a military homecoming that you’d like to share with us? Our number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. So, Aron, the film, “The Way We Get By,” how did you come to find out about this group of senior citizens in Bangor who greet and send off American service men and women?
GAUDET: Yeah, well, one of the Troop Greeters is my mom…
GAUDET: …and she goes to the airport, you know, 24/7 pretty much every day to greet troops that are going through there. And just seeing how much it changed her life was the first thing that really attracted me to the story. And went down with her for a flight to see what she was doing and got hooked just like the greeters do.
CAVANAUGH: Now, from what I understand, she didn’t actually tell you she was doing this. You kind of found out.
GAUDET: Yeah, I would, you know, I would always call home and check in on her a lot. I’m the youngest of eight children and she would always be home by the phone. And then suddenly she was never home, and I would call, you know, at eleven o’clock at night trying to get her and she wouldn’t answer and I would call my brothers and sister saying, you know, where’s Mom? And they said, oh, she’s at the airport. She goes there all the time and greets troops. And I kind of didn’t understand what that meant until I saw it for myself but, yeah, basically I could never get her on the phone anymore so I figured I’d better go to Maine and see what she was doing.
CAVANAUGH: And your mom, Joan, is 75 years old. At least she is when – at the time the film is made. I wonder, do you know how the Maine Troop Greeters actually came to be? How they started?
GAUDET: I do. They actually started during the Gulf War. It was a little different then because it was for a very short period of time and, you know, all the troops were deployed and then they were just greeting them as they were all coming home. It lasted about six months of just flights coming home. And about 19 World War II veterans had seen what happened after the Vietnam War when troops came home to no greeting or being treated poorly and really wanted to come up with something to make a difference this time around. And then they picked it up again in May of 2003 with this current war in Iraq and Afghanistan. And it was different because this time it was post-9/11 so security was a little different. The group couldn’t quite be as big as it was before and it was also troops going over and returning home so it was – but they have been pretty dedicated to it for over six years now.
CAVANAUGH: We have a clip from “The Way We Get By.” It’s from the beginning of the film. One of the people that you profile is named Bill and he tells us about the troop greeters and why they do what they do.
(audio of clip from “The Way We Get By”)
CAVANAUGH: And that’s from the documentary “The Way We Get By.” That’s one of the people profiled. His name is Bill. How often, Aron, do you say that these Maine Troop Greeters go to the airport to greet returning and departing troops?
GAUDET: Yeah, I mean, I would say that on average it’s probably six to seven days a week that flights come in and, you know, it might be one or two flights a day or as many as nine or ten. And like Bill, for instance, he’s a World War II vet and he’s one of the people that founded it back in the Gulf War. He had said one day he went there at three in the morning and he didn’t leave to go home until 11:00 p.m. the following night, so he was there for 20 hours straight greeting flights that came in. So it’s – it’s like when you turn 80 you decide to get two full time jobs at the airport, so it’s pretty amazing.
CAVANAUGH: We are taking your calls about the troop greeters in Maine and also troop greetings in other areas of the country, especially right here in San Diego. Do you have a story of a military homecoming that you’d like to share with us? 1-888-895-5727. I’d like to bring Bobby Woods into the conversation now. He’s the Director of the San Diego USO. And, Bobby, what is the USO doing here in San Diego to welcome home troops at Lindbergh?
WOODS: Well, first, I certainly share the same sentiment as everybody else do. Here in San Diego, the USO have combined with a couple of other organizations, one being the Airport Ambassadors, which are the information people at the airport. And some five, six months ago, we recognized that people are coming home and they’re not getting a reception. And we were moved by a documentary we saw from Texas, and I thought this is the right thing that we should be doing all across the country. So we gather together whenever we can find out that service members are coming home and we want to make sure that they are greeted properly and that they are proud of what they’re doing. And so, like everybody else is saying, we don’t want to go back to the time where service members are returning home not feeling appreciated so we make sure from San Diego that that happens.
CAVANAUGH: Now, in Aron’s film you see people lined up on the side of a sort of a runway where the troops come down and they’re carrying American flags and they’re basically applauding and shaking hands, is that what happens here as well?
WOODS: The exact same thing.
WOODS: We’re still in the building process and it’s getting bigger every day.
CAVANAUGH: Now how many service members coming and going from Iraq and Afghanistan fly through Lindbergh Field? We’re so used to Navy homecomings, as I said in the beginning, you know, with all the crew members on board the ship and all the family and friends on the – waiting for them on the dock. And I don’t know that we’re so familiar with the idea of people – troops returning home by Lindbergh Field.
WOODS: Yeah, here in San Diego, because we have such a huge contingency of Navy and Marines who have their own bases, oftentime they do come into their own bases and the general public don’t have the ability to get onto the bases. But the time that we find out that service members are coming home, whether we find out through the airline themselves, we certainly ask them, hey, it doesn’t matter whether it’s one or 25, we want to make sure that they feel good about coming home. So give or take, over the last five months, we’ve probably had eight or nine groups come in, probably no more than about 40. Unfortunately, one came in last Friday of 100 Army, and we didn’t even know about it.
WOODS: Yeah, that was unfortunate but whenever we can find out, we’ll try to be there.
CAVANAUGH: We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727 about the Maine Troop Greeters, the San Diego Troop Greeters and military homecomings. Let’s take a call from Luis in Camp Pendleton. Good morning, Luis. Welcome to These Days.
LUIS (Caller, Camp Pendleton): Good morning.
LUIS: Yes, I just pretty much just wanted to comment on how grateful I am when I’ve came back from Iraq on two occasions that I managed to stop at Bangor, Maine and I got to meet the Greeters and it felt great. You know, they really make a difference in my life. You know, I was so appreciative. You know, I really don’t have much of a family and when I came back to the States, you know, I felt like, you know, someone really was thankful for what I did, all the effort and what I do for my country, so it does really make a big difference, and especially in a Marine’s life.
CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for calling in. Luis, I just want to ask you a question real fast, what time of day did you get back? Do you remember?
LUIS: Yes, ma’am. We got in at, I would say, 0500 in the morning.
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, uh-huh. Thank you…
CAVANAUGH: Thank you for calling in, Luis, and that – Aron, the Maine Troop Greeters, I mean, they get up in the middle of the night sometimes to go out and…
CAVANAUGH: …greet troops coming home.
GAUDET: Yeah, and we talked with so many Marines from Camp Pendleton that were going through Bangor as we were making the movie. There were a lot of flights stopping on their way to or from Camp Pendleton. And, yeah, I mean, they don’t always get a lot of notice but, you know, for someone like that, coming through at five, that means they probably got a call at three or 3:30 in the morning and they called all the other greeters with their phone tree and headed out to the airport, so, yeah, it doesn’t matter what time it is. And when we were following them, we were kind of joking, we said, you know, can a few flights come in around noon? This is – They were wearing us out because it always seemed like it was the middle of the night when they would come in.
CAVANAUGH: Aron, in the documentary, it really is as much about the lives of the greeters as it is about the troops they welcome home. We heard a clip from Bill earlier in our discussion. Tell us a little bit about him. We first meet him, and his house is an absolutely wreck. I mean, it’s really pretty sad.
GAUDET: Yeah. Yeah, Bill’s a World War II veteran and his wife had died five years before we met him and started following him and I really think he had kind of given up when his wife died and just really let things go. And then he found troop greeting, you know, a couple of years later and that was really the only thing keeping him going was what he was doing for the troops and so it was – it was emotional following him around and he – The first day that we met Bill, he’d been diagnosed with prostate cancer earlier that day but we were there at a 2:00 a.m. flight and he was still there ready to welcome the troops home and that really grabbed us right from the start, that even on that day that he got that bad news he was still putting the troops before him. And he’s an inspirational guy that really just puts them above all else.
CAVANAUGH: Bill Knight and Jerry Munday, another person that’s profiled in your film, “The Way We Get By,” are both veterans, they both served. And tell us a little bit about the reaction that the vets coming home, the troops coming home, have seeing veterans welcoming them back.
GAUDET: Yeah, it’s pretty emotional to see, and I think, you know, when they’re coming back they’re not sure how to feel or what to expect and, you know, they’re just landing on U.S. soil for the first time, and I do think it’s that moment where, you know, the whole year that they’ve been gone or for how ever long they’ve been deployed, they really – they never relax and you can’t really let your guard down. So they get there and I think it’s when they hit that ramp and they see the greeters there waiting for them that that weight is lifted and they actually start to relax for the first time. So it is this kind of we’re catching them at this very emotional moment and, you know, who better to welcome them home than veterans like that that have been through something similar and know what they just went through, so they really can kind of offer them the kind of support that they need as they start to readjust to returning home.
CAVANAUGH: Bobby, in the film, I know that you’re a retired Sgt. Major, so some of the vets welcome home the troops and they’re thanking the troops and then the troops are thanking them and then they, no, thank you, thank you. Does that ever happen when you go down there?
WOODS: Often. Well, we don’t always get – we do get veterans…
WOODS: …but a lot of times the troops don’t know who’s a veteran.
WOODS: Some of them do wear their old insignia…
WOODS: …or a veteran’s cap. But they do often say thank you…
CAVANAUGH: Thank you.
WOODS: …they always do that.
CAVANAUGH: And then thank you back.
WOODS: Yeah, absolutely.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s – we have another guest on the line. Her name is Dr. Sarah Young and she’s calling from Mira Mesa. And good morning, Dr. Young. Welcome to These Days.
DR. SARAH YOUNG (Blue Star Mother): Hi.
CAVANAUGH: Hi. You’re a member of the Blue Star Mothers, and you also greet troops.
DR. YOUNG: Yes.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us a little bit about that.
DR. YOUNG: Well, the troop greeting we’ve been doing for quite a while but I think we’re one of America’s greatest kept secrets.
DR. YOUNG: We go to the military bases. And so we – They call us when there’s a troop arrival.
DR. YOUNG: And we greet them there. And then we also go to a pre-deployment briefing, which is really a service because usually these are first time deployments for the families and so the families are scared to death.
DR. YOUNG: And we can be there and say, don’t worry about it, we’ve been through this, we’ll tell you how it goes.
CAVANAUGH: How do you become a member of the Blue Star Mothers?
DR. YOUNG: Well, if you actually are a mother, you join, pay a whopping twenty bucks a year and you’re an active voting member. But you don’t have to be a mother. You can be a father, you can be a friend, brother, sister, just anybody, and you’re an associate member. So basically we are America’s military family. And depending on the chapter, like our chapter at the Blue Star Mothers of Greater San Diego, we would like to remember that you’re not just an active duty person, you also – it’s cradle to grave. We take care of our veterans, we take care of our future service members, so we are truly America’s military family.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I want…
DR. YOUNG: And so we also take care of the VVSD, the Veterans Village of San Diego, we take care of the Chula Vista Veterans Home. We cover everybody.
CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you this really quickly, Dr. Young, because your connection is not terribly great. So how can people get involved with your group if they’d like to find out more?
DR. YOUNG: They can go to the BlueStarMothersSanDiego.org. or they can call the Mother line. If you’re nervous in the service, call your mother. And this is one thing we – I did say that we greet people…
DR. YOUNG: …but also if they need transportation somewhere, they call that Mother line and we’ll come get them.
CAVANAUGH: And what’s a Mother line?
DR. YOUNG: The Mother line is 858-201-6479, and that works 24/7.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much for calling in, and thanks for the good work that you do. I wanted to ask you, Bobby, what other services does the USO provide for service men and women and military veterans in San Diego?
WOODS: Well, the USO has been around for over 68 years and in the early days we often provided entertainment in theatre, and we still do that. We offer it to the USO, specifically built and designed 68 years ago too, for the morale, welfare, and to lift the spirits of active duty service members, their dependents, also retired. At the USO Airport, we have a center that can provide for them computers, food, entertainment, so as they’re waiting for flights or coming in from a flight they can sit there and wait and have a good time. That’s just one center. We also have a downtown center that provides a lot more programs such as Christmas programs and Halloween programs and any program that you can think of that has a holiday attached to it, we do all those wonderful things for the military.
CAVANAUGH: And I’m wondering, do you – how do people get involved with the USO. I would imagine that’s pretty simple. You just…
WOODS: Well, I’ll tell you.
WOODS: I have probably 75 or 80 of the just most inspiring volunteers…
WOODS: …and most of them are more mature folks and they really have a passion for our military so through orientations and word of mouth, they come down and they volunteer. And not only just civilians volunteer but we have active duty members that come in and help out with the USO.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another phone call. John is calling from Encinitas. Good morning, John. Welcome to These Days.
JOHN (Caller, Encinitas): Yes, hello. I’m not a vet but I try to show my appreciation to the troops any time I see a convoy, I guess, between – when they’re a convoy between bases. But I carry a small flag in my car, American flag, and I just hold that out of the window so usually I get maybe about 20 trucks and jeeps of people that, you know, they honk or wave. So that’s what I try to do to show my support.
CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for calling in and telling us that, John. Thanks a lot. Aron, I wanted to ask you, in the movie, “The Way We Get By,” there’s a wall of fallen soldiers that we see at the Bangor airport and I wonder how that came to be and how important is it to troops as they return to the U.S. to see those pictures of the people who did not come back.
GAUDET: Yeah, well, it actually was started by Bill Knight, the World War II vet in the film. Yes, he would get the Navy Times paper and every issue they would put all the fallen troops and he would cut it out and add it to this wall outside the Troop Greeter room they had there. And it just became this kind of growing memorial to all of the fallen troops and it really became this thing where as soon as they would come in they would see that wall and, you know, a lot of them would go over and find their friends that they may have lost and they would start writing these messages on there. And it was really emotional to see that. You know, they would get back and they would find their friend that they had lost while they were over there and they would write something so personal, and it was very touching to see and it’s just kind of taken off and become this whole section at the airport that is very popular.
CAVANAUGH: In the film, during the length of the time you were making the documentary, two of your own relatives were deployed over to Iraq. Tell us how they did. Have they come home yet?
GAUDET: Yes, so over the course of while we were following my mom, over the course of the three years that we were following her, she found out that her two grandchildren, my niece and nephew were going to be deployed and my niece Amy is a Black Hawk helicopter pilot that flies a Medevac helicopter and, yeah, we followed them through to deployment day. And that was January of 2008 when they deployed and, yeah, thankfully, January of 2009 their entire unit returned without a single casualty. But it’s still tough because even, you know, my niece came back without any sort of physical injuries but you still, you know, every time she went out, she saw something kind of tough to see because the only way she would go out is if somebody had been hurt or injured in some way and so you still come back with a lot of emotional baggage so it’s still something that the troops have to work through. Even if they don’t get physically injured, they’re oftentimes, you know, coming back with emotional problems that we need to help them deal with.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Larry is calling from La Jolla. Good morning, Larry, and welcome to These Days.
LARRY (Caller, La Jolla): Hey, good morning. Yeah, when I came back from Vietnam in ’71, we landed at San Francisco International. We were greeted by Hare Krishnas screaming
‘murderers,’ ‘baby killers,’ so I think it’s wonderful what the people are doing now for the troops.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you for calling in, Larry. And, Bobby, that’s one of the reasons that you go down to Lindbergh Field to give returning troops now a different kind of greeting.
WOODS: Absolutely. That’s our main goal and Larry hit it right on the head. I, you know, I came in in the seventies. I often seen servicemen who were coming back from Vietnam who really sort of one of the most fundamentals of warfare is we try to stop people’s will to fight without shooting. And, you know, that can really stop service members, their will to fight, when we don’t see our own America caring about us. So, Larry, welcome home.
CAVANAUGH: Now I do want to point out, Aron, that some of the people you profile in this documentary actually are quite troubled by the fact that there are ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but it doesn’t seem to affect the way they feel about the troops.
GAUDET: Yeah, I mean, one – Well, there were a couple of things that we were really proud of as we started following them and the first was that, you know, just seeing that there is that separation this time and it’s not like Vietnam where people couldn’t seem to separate the mission from the troops, and this time around it seems like regardless of the politics they’re all about supporting the troops. And that was something going into it we didn’t really know what the Troop Greeters would be like but they’re just like the rest of the country, you know, there are some that were for the war or against the war, undecided, but it just didn’t matter to any of them. It was just all about coming together and supporting the troops. And we kind of gave that same rule to our film of just leaving the politics out as much as possible and making it about troop support, and we’re really happy that we could do that.
CAVANAUGH: I just – in our last – in our closing moments here, I would like you, Aron, to tell us a little bit about the website you’re launching today, the Returning Home Project. What is that?
GAUDET: Yeah, well, that’s kind of what I was talking about before where, you know, we felt like we would see all these troops come home and, you know, physically they’re home but emotionally they’re still kind of on this journey home, and we wanted to try to develop a website that could help give everyone around the country a way to kind of access the troops and show their support without the politics. So the Returning Home Project, which is returninghomeprojec.org, that launches today with the PBS screening tonight is it’s just that, it’s an online resource where people can go and post these messages of support to the troops through, you know, video or audio or text, photos, and really just show their support without the politics. And, hopefully, it just gives them some support where I think a lot of times on websites you go and you’re kind of overwhelmed by all the political statements that are there and it kind of gets nasty sometimes. We really want make this forum that would be more like what happens in Bangor, Maine where it’s just about supporting troops with positive messages of support. So we’re really excited about that website.
CAVANAUGH: And I really am out of time but, Bobby, when is the next organized greeting at Lindbergh Field?
WOODS: In fact, the next organized is tomorrow so I hope that folks here in San Diego can get excited about there at 12:13 tomorrow. We’ll have about 9 Marines coming back from one of the units in Camp Pendleton.
CAVANAUGH: That’s 12:13 in the afternoon.
WOODS: In the afternoon.
CAVANAUGH: Okay. Thank you so much. I want to thank my guests. Aron Gaudet, director of “The Way We Get By.” Aron, thank you.
GAUDET: Thank you very much.
CAVANAUGH: And retired Sgt. Major Bobby Woods. He’s Director of the San Diego USO. Thank you so much for being here.
WOODS: You’re very welcome. Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know “The Way We Get By” airs tonight at 9:00 on KPBS Television. And if you’d like to post your comments, please go online, KPBS.org/TheseDays. Coming up, the GI Bill, past and present. That’s ahead as These Days continues here on KPBS.
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