Intrepid Maine troop greeters age along with wars

November 11, 2009 6:17:55 AM PST
Jerry Mundy rarely misses an opportunity to extend his hand and offer thanks to young soldiers and Marines returning home, or departing for the war zone, during their brief layovers at the nation's easternmost major airport, a refueling hub for military transports.

Even when jolted out of bed in the middle of the night, Mundy and other volunteers have answered the call to greet each and every flight since the war in Iraq in 2003. They never figured troops would still be streaming through Bangor International Airport six years later.

"I'd give it up tomorrow if I could, but I won't give up until they're done - or I'm done - whichever comes first," the 74-year-old retired Marine said.

Mundy is one of three senior citizens showcased in a documentary about Maine's troop greeters that will be shown for a national audience for the first time on PBS on Veterans Day.

Filmmakers Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly got the idea for "The Way We Get By" after accompanying Gaudet's mother to greet soldiers at 2 a.m. in December 2004.

Among the greeters was World War II veteran Bill Knight, who was gripping hands despite getting a cancer diagnosis earlier that same day. They soon learned that Knight wasn't the exception. Others were equally determined to make sure that all military personnel received a proper reception.

It turns out the group had found meaning and inspiration through the simple act of kindness to strangers, young men and women serving their country, Gaudet said.

Gaudet and Pullapilly, who were living in Grand Rapids, Mich., at the time, naively thought they'd work on their first documentary for a year, then the troops would come home, just like the first Gulf War. Instead, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on, and so did their filming, which continued for more than three years.

Along the way, their documentary became as much a story about aging in America as it was about troop greeters as the filmmakers documented Knight getting treatment for prostate cancer, Mundy dealing with heart problems and Joan Gaudet, Aron's mother, dealing with the deployment of two grandchildren.

Knight, 87, of Bangor, said showing gratitude to military personnel gives him purpose.

"They're not letting me down, and I'm not going to let them down," said Knight, who served in North Africa in World War II. "I figure if I don't show up, then I'm letting them down."

The greeters get plenty of practice: Planes carrying troops make regular stops in Bangor to meet customs obligations, refuel and change crews for continuing flights.

On Tuesday, Knight and Mundy were among 30 greeters who let out a whoop and clapped as 298 soldiers from the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 1st Calvary Division, arrived for a refueling layover before the final leg of their flight home to Fort Hood, Texas.

The men and women in camouflage smiled and shook hands as they ran a gauntlet of greeters, then spilled through the airport terminal to take advantage of donated cell phones to called loved ones. Many of them headed straight outside for a smoke. Others fired up iPods or laptops.

"We all really appreciate what these people do. Coming off a 12-month deployment, this is a real morale booster to the soldiers to have someone say thank you," said 1st Sgt. Michael Davenport of Abingdon, Va., whose soldiers had been on the move without sleep for the past 72 hours.

Other places with troop-greeting programs include Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport in Texas and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta. But Bangor's may be the longest-running. All told, Bangor has greeted more than 4,000 flights and more than 900,000 soldiers.

Gaudet and Pullapilly collected more than 300 hours of video before the editing process began. They got a confidence boost when the rough cut played at Maine's Camden International Film Festival.

"We were just like, 'Oh my God. Is this going to play well? Is it going to be awful?' Then it starts and people are laughing. We hear people are crying. The three subjects were seeing it with an audience for the first time. Then it's over and there's a standing ovation," Aron Gaudet said.

Recently, they had showings at Walter Reed Medical Center and at the U.S. Capitol. But Wednesday's showing on PBS marks the first time the documentary will reach a national audience.

"For us Veterans Day is the perfect day for it to be on national television," Gaudet said. "We'd always talk about how every day is Veterans Day in the Bangor International Airport."

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