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Greeters Give Troops A Taste Of Maine Patriotism


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Greeters Give Troops A Taste Of Maine Patriotism

By David A. Fahrenthold, Washington Post Staff Writer

BANGOR, Maine -- It was 2 p.m. on a winter Wednesday at Bangor International Airport -- home to just five commercial carriers, 20 flights a day, and two of the last non-chain airport concessions in America, "Coffee Shop" and "Lounge."

The greeters were waiting.

They were about 30 strong on this day, milling around anxiously in a crowd full of gray hair and caps that said "veteran." One man had a sweatshirt on that said, "Not as Lean, Not as Mean, But still a Marine."

For a long time, they kept an eye on the empty runway outside.

Finally, a white jet touched down.

They're here, somebody in the crowd said.

The greeters formed themselves into two parallel rows. Then they waited again for a few more minutes, flags at the ready. Somebody said this one had 269 onboard.

Then, the first light-brown desert camouflage uniform appeared at the end of the hallway, and the greeters started to cheer. When the men got close enough, they got hugs and handshakes of the you-just-won-the-state-championship type.

"Good afternoon," greeter Joanne Black, 68, told them when they came to her place in the line, "and welcome home."

Thus began the fast, eventful and entirely typical visit of the Marine Corps' Combat Logistics Regiment 25 to Bangor. After traveling from Iraq's Anbar province to Kuwait to Frankfurt, Germany, they had reached a place that takes very seriously its role as the first place many returning U.S. troops touch American soil.

Very seriously. Black said this was the 993rd time she had helped greet a military plane here.

"Every time they come around that corner up there, I get goose bumps, and the hair stands up on the back of my neck," she said.

Bangor's far-northeast location means it gets an unusual share of military traffic: On average, at least two flights a day stop in here on their way to or from destinations overseas. The planes are here mostly for fuel and minor repairs, giving the troops onboard just an hour to an hour and a half of free time.

The airport and the greeters, of whom there are about 80 in total, do not want them to waste any of it. After the receiving line, they start handing out 41 free cell phones for soldiers to use in the terminal, and offer directions to food, beer, bathrooms and a place to smoke.

A few minutes after they landed, the "Lounge" -- which offered a military special, Bud or Bud Light for $3 a bottle -- had a long line outside. A few minutes after that, "The Marines' Hymn" broke out inside. Young men in camouflage and at least one veteran stood straight-backed and sang, "From the halls of Montezuma/To the shores of Tripoli . . ." and finished with a "Hoo-rah!"

In the terminal, in the middle of talking to a reporter, Cpl. Mikail Ransom bolted for the lounge when he heard them singing.

"We see, like, people actually care," Ransom said of the reception in Bangor, after the song was over and he had returned. "This is my first time seeing somebody actually show support."

Lt. Commander Timothy Hogan, a Navy chaplain, said he'd been surprised to find anybody waiting for them in Bangor. Because the unit is based at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, he figured that if there was any reception, it would be down there.

"Nobody expected anything" in Bangor, he was saying when a greeter passed by.

"Bud?" the greeter asked the chaplain, a Catholic priest. "Corona?"

Hogan thought for a second.

"Budweiser, please," he said.

An hour passed with cell-phone calls and conversations and snacks from the Coffee Shop. Even as the atmosphere in the terminal calmed down, Marines were still talking about how it had felt to come through the receiving line.

"It makes you feel like you've done something important by just being in Iraq and getting the beat-down from the military," said Lance Cpl. Achique Coyaso, of Hawaii, who said he had convoy duty every other day or more in Iraq.

"I thought maybe one or two" people might show, said Master Gunnery Sgt. Daryl Johnson, of Lansing, Mich. "Then when we walked out, it was like we were the president."

They left with presidential fanfare, too. When the boarding announcement came over the loudspeaker, the Coffee Shop began putting burgers into carryout containers, and the greeters formed another line. Now that everyone knew each other a little better, there seemed to be more hugs than there were on the way in. (The greeters' rules caution that "kissing is best left for the family to administer.")

"Thanks for your service," the greeters said.

"Thanks," many of the servicemen replied.

Finally, the last Marines came by, the greeters applauded, and then it was over. The dry-erase board in the troop greeters' office read:

"Since May 2003

FLIGHTS -- 1502

TROOPS -- 270,036

14 DOGS"

By 4 p.m., the little airport was quiet again. But not for long, because the next flight was already on the schedule.

"We've got one tomorrow morning at 2:45 a.m.," said William "Bill" Knight, a leader of the greeters. He said they'd be there.

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