Greeters Welcome Troops With Heartfelt Thanks

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More than 900,000 troops have passed through Bangor, Maine since the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003 — and the "troop greeters" have been there to offer a handshake, kind words, and cookies to each and every one. Director Aron Gaudet discusses The Way We Get By, his new documentary about the retired men and women who turn out day and night to show their respect for troops going to and from war.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Many flights carrying U.S. troops to and from Iraq and Afghanistan stop to refuel at the easternmost major airport in the United States in Bangor, Maine. And right from the start, people there have been on hand to greet the troops off the plane.

(Soundbite of movie, The Way We Get By)

Mr. WILLIAM KNIGHT: This is going to be the inbound flight (unintelligible)

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. KNIGHT: Its going to be the inbound flight, coming home. Comin home, welcome home, welcome home, welcome home.

CONAN: Since they started in 2003, the Maine troop greeters have sent off and welcomed home more than 900,000 men and women in uniform. Over time, theyve gone beyond handshakes, congratulations and hugs to offer cookies and donuts and free cell phones.

(Soundbite of movie, The Way We Get By)

Unidentified Man #1: Hi, mom

Unidentified Man #2: Hi, mom.

Unidentified Man #3: Im in Maine.

Unidentified Man #4: Dad. Well, hey there, young lady?

Unidentified Man #5: Guess where Im at?

Unidentified Man #6: Were in Maine right now.

Unidentified Man #7: Were in Maine right now.

Unidentified Man #8: (Unintelligible)

Unidentified Man #9: Im back in the United States.

Unidentified Man #10: Feels pretty damn good.

Unidentified Man #11: There people here to greet and everything. It was awesome.

Unidentified Man #12: All these vets, they were just in a line(ph).

Unidentified Man #13: Came here to welcome us when we came into the terminal.

Unidentified Man #14: This is where Steven King lives.

Unidentified Man #15: Daddy be home soon - okay, honey? I love you very much and I miss you.

(Soundbite of kissing sounds)

CONAN: The troop greeters of Bangor, Maine are the subject of a new documentary called The Way We Get By. It starts to air tonight on PBS as part of the POV series. If youve been greeted on your way to or from Iraq and Afghanistan, tell us your story, 800-989-8255, email us talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site, thats at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Aron Gaudet is the director of The Way We Get By. He joins us now from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. ARON GAUDET (Director, The Way We Get By): Thanks. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And I understand this project began for you when you made a phone call home and nobody answered.

Mr. GAUDET: Right, yeah. My mom is one of the Maine troop greeters and, you know, when she retired she would always be home and I would call a lot to check in and she would always answer the phone. And then suddenly she didnt and I would call later and later. I would be calling at 11:00 p.m. or midnight and she still wasnt home, and I would call my brothers and sisters and say, you know, Wheres mom? And they would say, oh, well, she goes to the airport and she greets troops now. So when I finally got her on the phone, she told me I should be calling her cell phone, which kind of surprised me. I wasnt sure why she had a cell phone and

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GAUDET: when I went home for Christmas that year, I just had to see what she was doing, and that was kind of start of it all.

CONAN: Well, Arons mother Joan is also with us today, she joins us from the studios at Maine Public Broadcasting in Bangor. Nice to have you on the program.

Ms. JOAN GAUDET (Troop Greeter): Thank you.

CONAN: And how did you get started with greeting troops at the airport and then hanging out at strange hours?

Ms. GAUDET: A lady that I use to work with saw me one day and she was on her way to go to the airport to greet a flight and asked me if I like to join her. So I did and thats about all it takes after you go once, then you hooked, you dont want to give it up.

CONAN: Its a little addictive, you say in the film.

Ms. GAUDET: It is.

CONAN: And I wonder, one of the things you also say in the film is youre no longer a young man and that you were frightened, particularly in the winters there in Maine, which can be ferocious, that if you left the house, theres a lot of snow and ice you could slip on and fall.

Ms. GAUDET: Well, thats right. Ive had knee replacements and Im always afraid to fall because I cant get on my knees to get back up. So thats one of the reasons.

CONAN: And lets get back to Aron Gaudet, there in New York. As you found out about what your mother was doing and how much it had changed her life, you began to see an opportunity for a film here?

Mr. GAUDET: Yeah, I mean it just - she was suddenly so dedicated and so active and just out at the airport all the time. So, I was actually living in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and I went home for Christmas in December of 2004, and she got a call for a 2 AM flight. And my, now wife but also film producer - Gita Pullapilly - and I tagged along with her and went to that 2 AM flight and that was the start.

We met one of the other subjects we follow, World War II veteran Bill Knight. And earlier that day he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer but he was still there at 2:00 a.m. to greet troops. And that really just grabbed us, that even on that day, he was putting the troops ahead of himself. And that was, kind of, it - when a flight came in, we were kind of addicted as well and we just figured it was a story worth telling.

CONAN: And some of the people that you do follow, like Bill, you were talking about, are veterans and they wear their World War II veteran baseball caps. Obviously, your mom is not?

Mr. GAUDET: Right, my dad was active during the Korean War, but yeah, she her connections are through him and also her she has three grandchildren that serve and And I think, also, she spent her life taking care of people. You know, Im the youngest of eight and she has 12 grandchildren. And she worked at a nursing home for much of her career. And, I think, when she retired and we all grew up, she had some extreme empty nest syndrome and she was looking for some new people to take care of.

CONAN: Well, Joan Gaudet, the film tells the story of the departure of your granddaughter.

Ms. GAUDET: Yes, it does.

CONAN: And shes a helicopter pilot hows she doing?

Ms. GAUDET: Shes doing good. She is a helicopter pilot. That really scared me when she left, but everything is fine and everyone that went with them came back with them.

CONAN: Oh, thats great to hear. Thats really great to hear. I think it was 132 people, in her unit, left, and they swore to bring the 132 people home.

Mr. GAUDET: And they did.

Ms. GAUDET: And they did it.

CONAN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thats wonderful news. Lets see we get some caller on the line. Wed like to hear from people, today, whove been met, greeted, at airports - or whether in Bangor, Maine, or elsewhere 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Jesses(ph) is on the line from Denver.

JESSE (Caller): Hi, good afternoon gentlemen.

CONAN: Jessie, youre on the air. Go ahead, please.

JESSE: Oh, thanks for having me. I really appreciate all that the people of Bangor, Maine, do. Ive been out to Iraq and back a couple of times with the Marine Corp and each time I was really surprised that how many people came out to greet me, and shake my hand and make me feel really proud to do what I did.

CONAN: Its unusual to come out of the airport like that. I dont what time of the day it was but that doesnt matter, it seems, to the people of Bangor.

JESSIE: Right. No. Its usually I think, if I remember a couple of years ago, in the middle of the night and, you know, its a lot of war veterans and families that have members of members in the military and, you know, for that many people come out at the middle of the night - its just it makes you feel like youre not alone and youre doing something that that youre supposed to do.

CONAN: Jessie, are you due back anytime?

JESSIE: Now, Im actually Im in the inactive Reserves so, if I did deploy, I wouldnt mind if they gave me a call - but no Im doing the civilian life now.

CONAN: So, if you go back to Bangor, its going to be as a tourist.

JESSIE: Absolutely, you know, or to shake the hands of the Marines and the troops that are all going or coming home.

CONAN: I recommend you go in summer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JESSIE: Absolutely, yeah, its kind of chilly out there.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Jessie. Appreciate it. Lets see if we go next to this is Eric(ph). Eric with us, from Tempe, Arizona.

ERIC (Caller): Hi. Thank you for having me on. I just wanted to say thank you. Very emotional experience. We came home that particular deployment in 2005, after about a 17-hour flight, and it was about 2 oclock in the morning and we were walking down the jet way and we didnt expect anything. And then these wonderful people, you know, had signs, they had cookies, they had orange juice, they had coffee and they had cell phones.

And one gentleman kept trying to hand me the cell phone. I said no, you know, Ive been in almost 20 years by that time and my wifes a trooper. Ive been all over the world, but he wouldnt take no for an answer. That was a very emotional phone call. And Im so thankful for what they did. That was very kind at two oclock in the morning.

CONAN: Eric, I can hear in your voice the memories are little emotional, too.

ERIC: Yes, they are, very emotional. But like I said, Ive, you know, Ive been all over the world and Im used to just coming home grabbing my suitcase, throwing it in the car and going home. And the people of Bangor, Maine, were just so wonderful to us. And Im so thankful for that. Theyre thats a tremendous service, thats a tremendous sacrifice and I really appreciate their help.

CONAN: Eric, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

ERIC: Okay.

CONAN: Bye, bye. Joan Gaudet, it must be great to hear people like that thank you for what you do?

Ms. GAUDET: It is. I love to hear that. And thats the way we want it to be -for them to really feel welcomed home and glad to be back.

CONAN: And Aron, lets get back to the son and the filmmaker, Aron Gaudet, who is with us from New York. That is superficially what this film is about. You go a little bit more deeply into the lives of, well, your mom and the two other men you profile, to explain a little bit about what it means to be elderly in America and what it means to have something greater than yourself to give yourself to, even late in life?

Mr. GAUDET: Yeah, you know, I think that simple act of kindness that they were doing, the greeting is what first attracted us. But, as soon as, we went home with each of them and saw everything that they were going through outside the airport, the focus of the film kind of shifted a little bit. And it did become more about them and all their struggles with growing old and a lot of universal struggles that anybody at any age could face.

And I think that really became the heart of the movie. And it was just great to see how the troop greeting helped them through each of their obstacles. You know, they would be having a bad day and that phone would ring about a troop flight coming in. And their whole demeanor would change. They would just rush to the airport and it was just great to see over and over again how that improved their lives and helped them though all of their obstacles.

CONAN: As you mentioned, Bill Knight, a World War II veteran who has prostate cancer. The other person you follow in addition to your mom is Jerry Mundy who has got heart problems and has to start taking medication for his heart in the course of this film and then loses his best friend, his dog, this is very touching stuff?

Mr. GAUDET: Yeah, they were going through a lot of stuff, as we were following them. And every time we would go up, it just seem like all that stuff was happening to them. And we just felt like they opened their lives to us so much, there are so open and honest and genuine with us that we just felt like they put their trust in us. And we really had to honor that and try to tell their truthfully and honestly. And there are just three real genuine people. And what they are doing here is very inspiring to me. And they taught me a lot about life as I made the movie.

CONAN: I dont want to give anything away, well, I do want to give something away. There is Bill, one of the people you profile says to you at one point and its a heart wrenching scene. He says, I dont have for me anything left to live for. There is nothing left for me in this life. I live to do this.

Mr. GAUDET: Yeah, it was a really emotional day, you know, Gita and Dan, my friend Dan that shoot the film with me, and myself - we walked out that day all wiping tears from our eyes. And that was a kind of one of those things that I would never want to feel myself. So, to see him going through was really tough.

But, one of the most rewarding things about the film is weve been able to take my mom and Bill and Jerry on the road with the film and weve shown it theatrically. And Bill, you know, they dont walk into to a theater following the film without getting a standing ovation. And its pretty special. And so many people will come up to Bill and hug him and thank him and say how much theyve hes moved them and to have the film comeback around and give him that lift and show him that he hasnt out lived his usefulness and he has a lot to offer, has been really rewarding.

CONAN: Were talking with Aron Gaudet, director of the POV film, The Way We Get By, which begins airing on PBS tonight. Also with us his mother Joan Gaudet, one of the main troop greeters. And youre listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And lets get another caller on the line. This is Cilia (ph). Cilia with us from Fort Drum in New York Upstate.

CILIA (Caller): Hi, Neal, thank you so much for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

CILIA: First, I want to thank you for doing this film. I think its so remarkable. Im actually an army veteran. And I deployed to Iraq at the start of the war in early May of 03. And I remember when we out of Bangor, nobody even knew, you know, soldiers at that point, that was pretty much the hub of going in and out from, you know, what ever installation youre plying from initially, to go to Iraq and then back to the States.

Unfortunately, I personally did not have the welcome crew. I wasnt blessed with that for these wonderful people to come out. But I just want to thank you from the bottom of my heart what you do, for these are veteran, for my husband who is still in right now. He is actually in Iraq. And Im sure him and all these soldiers will so appreciate it, whenever, they comeback to see, you know, the welcome crew. It just - it really warms my heart.

CONAN: Cilia, thanks for the call. We wish your husband the best there in Iraq.

CILIA: Oh, thank you so much.

CONAN: Appreciate it. Bye, bye. Lets see if can go next to this is Andrew (ph) Andrew with us from Lacrosse in Wisconsin.

ANDREW (Caller): Yes, hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

ANDREW: I was calling just to say how wonderful it was in particular, to be greeted older veterans, of people who are there for the country when we were really in need of what they did for us. As a younger veteran, I just did a four year enlistment with the air force and I came back through Bangor in 2007. And I was greeted by these older veterans. And I thought it was just such an honor, for them to thank me, for what I did.

CONAN: Its interesting, you cant watch this film as an outsider and not see the faces of the older vets and look at the, well, the kids as what they, a lot of them coming off the plane and think, gee, what are they be going to be doing in 45 or 50 years.

ANDREW: Right.

CONAN: Andrew, thanks very much for the call.

ANDREW: Youre welcome, thank you.

CONAN: And lets see we get one more caller in. This is Ed(ph). Ed with us from Traverse City in Michigan.

ED (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: Go ahead please.

ED: Yes, I was going through Bangor, surprised that anybody would even be there, in the fall of 93 going off to Africa and on to Somalia. We sat in Saint Louis, getting rid of ship out all day and it was kind of lonely scary experience. And then to come into Bangor, you know, have these people reach out and touch you and thank you for going off to wars was quite refreshing and well needed. And I was really surprised to even see that.

CONAN: Yeah, yeah, it means a lot to just to think that people at home remember who you are, and what youre doing, and why it is important?

ED: It is, and then the it was well appreciated. And when I think of Veterans Day, I think of Korea, World War II, and Vietnam guys who really changed the world because, you know, nowadays its political war, its not really anything on what the world in going to crumble it for not there. So, it was appreciated.

CONAN: All right, Ed, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

ED: Thank you.

CONAN: And, Joan, again youre hearing what your activities did for these men and women who called up. Its also done lot for you, hasnt it?

Ms. GAUDET: Oh, yeah. Makes me feel really good to think so many people appreciate what we do. We have such a good time doing that. Sometimes it just doesnt feel like, oh, I dont want to say not important because it is. But its a different feeling. And then when you hear someone say how much it meant to them that really makes your day.

CONAN: Joan Gaudet, thanks very much and continue with your good work.

Ms. GAUDET: Thank you.

CONAN: Joan Gaudet, a Maine troop greeter. Also thanks to her son, Aron appreciate your time today.

Mr. GAUDET: Thank you, thanks for having us on.

CONAN: Aron Gaudet is a documentary filmmaker. His most recent The Way We Get By. You can see it, beginning tonight, Veterans Day on PBS.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

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