Welcome Stop for Warriors

Times Staff Writer

Tired and bleary-eyed, Marines of the 1st Battalion, 7th Regiment, based at Twentynine Palms, Calif., were finally back on U.S. soil after seven months on the front lines in Iraq.

But they were still many miles and hours from their families and the homecoming they longed for. Their officers told them they would be on the ground for 60 to 90 minutes while their chartered plane was refueled.

So they disembarked and began walking through the airport terminal corridor to a small waiting room.


That’s when they heard the applause.

Lining the hall and clapping were dozens of Bangor residents who have set a daunting task for themselves: They want every Marine, soldier, sailor and airman returning through the tiny international airport here to get a hero’s welcome.

Even if the planes arrive in the middle of the night or a blizzard, they are there.

Composed mostly from the generation that served in World War II and Korea, they call themselves the Maine Troop Greeters. They have met every flight bringing troops home from Iraq for nearly two years -- more than 1,000 flights and nearly 200,000 troops.

“Here they come. Everybody get ready,” said Joyce Goodwin, 71, her voice full of excitement, undiminished by the hundreds of times she has shown up to embrace the returning troops.

As dozens more Marines came down the corridor, the applause grew louder and was accompanied by handshakes, hugs, and a stream of well wishes: “Welcome home.” “Thank you for your service.” “God bless you.” “Thank you for everything.”

Faces brightened. Grouchiness disappeared. Greeters and Marines alike began taking photographs. The Marines were directed down a corridor decorated with American flags and red, white and blue posters to cellphones for free calls to family members.

They found a table with cookies and candies. Plates of homemade fudge circulated.

“Welcome home, gunny,” said Al Dall, 74, who served in the Marines during the Korean War, as he thrust his hand at a startled Gunnery Sgt. Edward Parsons, 31, of Shelby, N.C.

“This is incredible,” Parsons said. “Now I know I’m really back in the world.”

The greeters line the corridor both as the troops arrive and then, minutes later, as they return to their planes to continue their journeys to Fort Hood, Camp Pendleton and other Army and Marine Corps bases.

The airport gift store opens early. T-shirts saying “I Love Maine” are popular. So are adult magazines. The store takes military scrip from troops low on cash, even though there is no way for the store to get reimbursed.

The airport bar does a brisk business, selling Budweiser at $3 a bottle. Some officers have rules against their troops consuming alcohol before a flight; the commanding officer of this battalion had no such restriction, and the bar was full of Marines laughing, singing, and joking.

“We appreciate everything you’ve done for us,” said Bud Tower, an Air Force veteran, who, at 58, considers himself “a kid” among the other greeters.

Kay Lebowitz, 89, has such severe arthritis that she cannot shake hands. So she hugs every Marine and soldier she can. Some of the larger, more exuberant troops lift her off the ground.

“Many of them tell me they can’t wait to see their grandmother,” she said. “That’s what I am: a substitute grandmother.”

The greeters also turn out for flights headed to Iraq, but those are somber occasions. The Marines on this flight were returning from a lawless stretch of desert along the Syrian border, where they dodged roadside bombs and sniper fire on a daily basis.

“When the flights are going over, it’s heart-breaking,” Lebowitz said. “But when they’re coming home, it’s heart-warming.”

The core of the Maine Troop Greeters is a dedicated group of about 30 residents who have a highly developed “telephone tree” to get the word out about impending arrivals. Their numbers swell on weekends when particular brigades are due back, such as local National Guard units. Families with young children join in.

Most of the greeters support the U.S. mission in Iraq, but their goal is historic, not political. Discussion of politics is banned. The greeters don’t want America to repeat what they consider a shameful episode in history: the indifference, even hostility, that the public displayed to troops returning from Vietnam.

“I think there’s a lot of collective guilt about the ‘60s,” said greeter Dusty Fisher, 63, a retired high school history teacher now serving in the state Legislature.

The airport in this city of 31,000 has a long runway and is a refueling stop for many overseas troop flights. The terminal is a tidy, homey, two-story structure with skylights and floor-to-ceiling windows that let in copious light.

Above the waiting room, a banner reads, “Maine. The Way Life Should Be.”

Once the troops find seats, the greeters fan out.

Phillip Eckert, 70, a bantam-sized ex-Marine with an outsized personality, likes to talk about the “old Corps” and tell stories of tough-as-nails sergeants and crazy-brave officers he knew from Korea. He wears a red sweatshirt that says, “Not As Lean, Not as Mean, But Still A Marine.”

Eckert leads Marines in raspy versions of the Marine hymn. He does his drill-instructor imitation: “move it, Move It, MOVE IT,” he said in a mock-urgent voice.

“I whoop and holler at the troops, and they seem to like it, I guess,” he said.

Jerry Mundy, 69, also a former Marine, likes to dispense mildly salty jokes.

“My lady friend just bought us one of those king-size beds,” he said. “Trouble is that at my age, after I finally find her, I forget what for.”

Others try a quieter approach. Dall makes himself available if the troops want to talk about the traumas of combat.

“I’ve been there, so I know what they’ve gone through,” he said. “I say, ‘Forget me, this is your time.’ I’m here if you need me.” Like the Marines, the greeters have had casualties. Four have died since the group started meeting the planes in May 2003.

Marjorie Dean suffered a fatal heart seizure while she and her husband, Bill, were on their way to meet a late-night flight a year ago. She was 79.

Goodwin missed three days of flights when she was in the hospital for heart surgery.

“I felt like I was in withdrawal,” she said. “It was awful not being able to be here for the boys.”

Bill Knight, 83, one of the group’s organizers, came to the airport just hours after his doctor told him that he has advanced prostate cancer. “It never occurred to me not to come,” said Knight, who served in the Army and Navy for three decades.

Francis Zelz, 81, who served in the Navy during World War II, said it is a point of pride to respond even with only a few minutes notice. Many of the greeters were part of a similar welcome-home effort during the Persian Gulf War.

“You get a call at 3 a.m. about a flight in 30 minutes, and you think about staying in bed,” Zelz said. “Then you realize, no, I can’t do that. That wouldn’t be right.”

On one window of the greeters’ office at the end of the corridor are hundreds of photographs of Marines and soldiers killed in Iraq taken from newspaper stories.

Inevitably, troops drift toward the window and search for their buddies. Sometimes they scribble small notes of remembrance next to the photos.

The 1st Battalion, 7th Regiment suffered 15 dead and 86 wounded. The Marines were left alone to search for their buddies’ photos.

“There’s Wilt,” said a Marine pointing to one of Lance Cpl. Nicholas Wilt, 23, of Tampa, Fla.

“There’s Rowe,” said another, a reference to Capt. Alan Rowe, 35, of Hagerman, Idaho.

After several long and silent minutes, Staff Sgt. Larry Long, 31, of Clovis, N.M., finally found the photo he was searching for: Pfc. Ryan Cox, 19, of Derby, Kan.

“He was a good Marine, a hard-charger,” Long said with a catch in his voice. “He would have been a good squad leader.”

Navy chaplain Lt. Cmdr. Robert White, returning home with the Marine unit to which he was assigned, said the Bangor welcome may prove therapeutic.

“They need to feel good about themselves and what they’ve been through,” White said.

Marine Lt. David Tumanjan, 24, of Boise, Idaho, said the Bangor greeting is both humbling and gratifying. “It shows us that what we did wasn’t in vain,” he said.

The greeters say their payoff is seeing the surprise and smiles on the faces of the troops. “Every flight coming home makes it like Christmas Eve,” Tower said.

Don Guptill, 71, who served in the Army in Korea, listened as an enlisted Marine, his eyes fixed on the carpet, talked quietly about being wounded three times.

As the call came over the loudspeaker to return to the plane, the young Marine reluctantly pulled something from his back pocket. It was his Purple Heart.

“He said he was embarrassed to wear it,” Guptill said. “I told him: ‘You wear it. You earned it. You wear it for all the guys who didn’t make it home.’ ”

The Marines were barely gone when the Maine Troop Greeters began preparing for the next flight. “It’s going to be a busy day for us,” said Bill Dean, 70, an Army veteran. “That feels good.”