Over the past 14 years, more than a million and a half U.S. service members have passed through the Bangor International Airport on their way to and from their overseas assignments.
For as many years, they have been met with a smile and thank you by loyal volunteers known as Troop Greeters. A new museum to honor their work had its grand opening Friday.
The excitement began to mount almost as soon as the Bangor Band started warming up. It was a red-letter day for the hundreds of Mainers who, since 2003, have made the trip to the airport to welcome soldiers anytime, day or night.
Cathy Czarnecki, a co-chair for the museum campaign, says it will be a place to proudly display the collection of the military challenge coins, patches and other tokens of thanks left behind by those troops that had quickly outgrown the display space at the airport.
“We have shirts, we have hats that we have not been able to put on display right now, and it will be a revolving thing,” she says. “We haven’t decided if it’s going to be every six months or every year that we’re going to kind of swap things out so that at some point, people will be able to see everything we’ve got.”
And when visitors pass through the airport corridor where thousands of coins and badges already line the walls in cases, they may have a better understanding of the bond between American soldiers and the hundreds of Mainers who would reliably appear to welcome them off the plane.
“It isn’t a battlefield, but it’s sacred ground,” says independent U.S. Sen. Angus King of Maine, one of the speakers at the grand opening event. “This is where our troops first set foot in America coming back from the searing experience of battle, and for over a million veterans in America, this is a sacred place right here — this corridor right here.”
Also on hand was Sgt. Kevin Tillman, who played saxophone for the event. It was 26 years ago that Tillman, who was coming through the facility during Desert Storm, performed a moving rendition of the national anthem on an instrument he borrowed from a local high school student.
Troop greeters attending the museum broke into applause for Tillman’s return to Bangor, and his rendition of “God Bless America.”