BANGOR, Maine — The Maine Troop Greeters met their 7,196th military flight at Bangor International Airport just before noon Wednesday, an hour after they accepted a $15,000 check from Bangor Savings Bank to help preserve the history they have made and recorded over the last 11 years.
For more than a decade, many of those in uniform have been so moved by the dedicated greeters who stood in line to shake their hands, give hugs and wish them well when heading overseas or returning from deployments that they left behind or sent mementos as a way to say thanks.
Each and every piece — the coins, patches, flags, photos, letters, souvenirs — is a little bit of history and a museum is planned in the terminal hallway connecting to the international gate at BIA, known as “Greeters Hall,” to permanently display them.
“Back in the 1991 timeframe when we welcomed our heroes from Kuwait, we lost [the memorabilia collected],” Chuck Knowlen, chairman of the group of 250 local volunteers who greet troop transfer flights, told those gathered Wednesday at the airport for the check presentation.
The troop greeters met an estimated 85,000 troops who returned in 1991 from Operation Desert Storm.
The Maine Troop Greeters started counting flights and troops during the Iraq war in May 2003, and just before the noontime flight the greeters had met 1,458,657 troops and 386 military dogs.
“This room is just stuffed with memorabilia,” Knowlen said. “We’re approaching 1.5 million [departing and returning troops].” The museum will not just be a display of history, he said.
“We also hope the museum will be a healing place as well,” said Knowlen, a 20-year U.S. Army veteran who earned the Silver Star in Vietnam and has been a troop greeter for seven years.
A number of the items belonged to people who perished while deployed. The troop greeters also have a memory book that lists everyone who has died in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, some that feature photos, newspaper clippings, notes from fellow servicemembers who made it home and letters from family members.
The troop greeters, airport officials and the Bangor Museum and History Center applied for an Institute of Museum and Library Services grant last year to build a permanent display for the collection, but failed to get the grant mostly because there were no matching funds, Knowlen said.
Greeters have recently started a capital campaign to raise $289,000 to build the museum and establish a maintenance account.
BIA Director Tony Caruso said the relationship between the airport and the troop greeters is “more than a partnership. It’s blossomed into more of a family.”
Bob Montgomery-Rice, executive vice president and chief operating officer for Bangor Savings Bank, said his brother and brother-in-law both were met by the Maine Troop Greeters at BIA en route to their overseas deployments.
“What you all did down here was to make people feel valued,” Montgomery-Rice said just before handing the troop greeters the donation. “It’s a privilege and an honor to help you.” Bangor Savings Bank previously donated $5,000 to the museum.
Bangor was for many, “the last place they took off from or the first place they returned to,” Nelson Durgin, who retired from the Air Guard as a major general and is the former Bangor City Council chairman, said at the event.
Autographed flags, Iraqi money, Saudi and Kuwaiti items, helmets, 56 macrame bracelets, 277 dog tags from soldiers, and even a Purple Heart are on display, along with 29 folded flags with certificates saying they flew over foreign soil, 1,765 patches from military units from across the country, 184 infantry badges and 5,398 service coins.
During the presentation Cathy Czarnecki, the group’s treasurer, presented Heidi Suletzki, supervisor of passenger service which notifies the troop greeters, with a plaque of thanks.
“We’ll be here until they all come home,” Czarnecki said.
About two-thirds of the troop greeters have some sort of military background or ties, which is why they understand how important a homecoming is, especially for those who have been overseas in harm’s way.
Many of the greeters — including Navy veteran Steve Burgess of Bangor — remember firsthand the pain caused when returning troops from Vietnam were not treated with respect.
“That’s why I’m out here because they deserve a good welcome or send off,” he said. “Because we didn’t get one.”
The late William “Bill” Knight, a dedicated greeter who often was seen wearing his black World War II veteran hat, is credited with being one of the founding fathers of the group. He was Burgess’s recruiter.
About 15 or 16 troop greeters met a midnight flight and returned to the airport just before noon to meet 293 members of the U.S. Air Force, who gathered from all over the country and departed from Langley Air Force base in Norfolk, Virginia, en route to Saudi Arabia.
Sgt. Luisa Martinez, of Eglin Air Base in Florida, was part of the group and was met by the troop greeters and several members of her family, including her mother, Martha Henao, and aunt Yvonne Robinson, of Roque Bluffs.
“These greeters are amazing,” Robinson said. “I can’t believe that they come every day to do this.”