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Wednesday, Nov. 11 is Veterans Day in America. It's a day set aside to honor those who have served in the armed forces, especially in wartime.In that spirit, a small group of senior citizens in the northeastern U.S. city of Bangor, Maine, has been working around the clock at the local airport to say thank you to troops leaving for, and returning from, Iraq and Afghanistan. A new documentary film profiles three of these elderly greeters and examines how their tributes have enriched not only the troops' lives, but also their own.
Group has been greeting troops at airport since 2003
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Filmmaker Aron Gaudet's new nationally broadcast documentary, "The Way We Get By," shows a common scene at Bangor Maine's international airport, as members of a group called Maine Troop Greeters and other local citizens gather to cheer the troops. They come to Bangor International because this easternmost major U.S. airfield, with its 3.5 kilometer long runway and isolated security, is the preferred stop for military planes transporting troops to and from Iraq and Afghanistan.
A core group of about 25 mostly elderly volunteers has received and sent off nearly one million service members since May 2003, shortly after the start of the Iraq war.
The documentary reveals that delivering this simple kindness gives the greeters a sense of purpose. Many say that prior to volunteering they felt they had outlived their usefulness.
Bill Knight, 87, is a World War Two veteran with prostate cancer. His wife died several years ago and he is facing financial hard times.
"Life is pretty strange when you're alone. You never know what it's gonna drive you to. My life don't mean a hell of a lot to me, but if I can make it mean something to someone else, well, that's my endeavor," Knight says.
A welcome by Knight and his fellow volunteers certainly meant a lot to two servicemen who expressed appreciation for the display of support and appreciation.
Joy is not the only emotion returning troops feel
Greeter Jerry Mundy, 74, a burly ex-Marine who faces health challenges, encourages arriving troops to use available free cell phones at the airport to call their loved ones.
"I come home, I feel good. I feel better. That's the best part of the whole deal is handing them the phones. It's so rewarding for us to give them the chance to make the calls. It's just amazing to see it," Mundy says, recalling joyful phone exchanges he often overhears.
But the film also shows that happiness is not the only emotion returning troops experience as they deplane. Many are still grieving for their fallen buddies.
"I mean you can't get somebody to feel what it's like when you are sound asleep and the whole world explodes. I mean, how do you explain that to somebody? I mean it's over. We're home," one soldier says. He tells the filmmakers the nightmare of war is still with him.
Seniors and soldiers grapple with mortality and isolation
It may seem at first that these troops and their elderly greeters have little in common. But director Aron Gaudet finds poignant parallels.
"Like the troops that were heading over to war, they were really thinking about their own mortality and what they were heading into. And when you are 87 years old and have prostate cancer, you're thinking about a lot of those same things. And then the troops that were coming back, they were kind of going through that same thing. When they were over there, they were providing this great service, and when they come back a lot of times they were worried they are going to get pushed aside or marginalized and forgotten about. That's another thing those greeters were going through as well," Gaudet says.
The film inspires audiences as it pays tribute to those who serve
The documentary's producer, Gita Pullapilly, who is also filmmaker Gaudet's wife, says she was inspired by the combination of vulnerability and strength shown by the elderly greeters.
"They'd go through enormous obstacles and find their way out and talk about how everybody has to go through life in their own way. You push through and you find your way through it and when Aron and I would go home and we would be struggling through these intense issues, it would actually help us," Pullapilly says.
As greeter Bill Knight knows well there will be more casualties and more veterans before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are over. Aaron Gaudet's "The Way We Get By" is a timely reminder of the sacrifices made by those who serve, and the value of honoring that service with public and personal tribute.