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Small town America embraces soldiers returning from war

By Joseph L. Galloway

Knight Ridder Newspapers

July 31, 2003

BANGOR, Maine - They gather on an hour's notice, racing to Bangor International Airport with cakes and cookies. Another planeload of American troops is inbound for its first stop on American soil. These volunteers, many old veterans themselves, are determined that no new American war veteran will come home without anyone noticing or caring.

So they throw a loud, raucous and heartwarming surprise party two or three or four times a day, and they don't care if it seems a little quaint. They love doing it and the troops coming home love them for it.

In 1991 and 1992, crowds of up to 2,000 Bangor volunteers turned out to celebrate the return of hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Flight schedules were published in the local newspaper. That was before Sept. 11. Now there is only an hour or two advance notice, and airport security prefers that no more than a hundred or so greeters gather to meet the planes.

So the word is passed by a telephone tree run by Becky Davis, the mother of a Marine and two Army soldiers - one in Iraq today, another bound for duty in Afghanistan shortly.

No one has to call Bill Knight, though. The 82-year-old veteran of the North African and Italian campaigns in World War II usually is already at the airport, checking on the supply of little American flags and getting black bunting hung around a list of the Americans who have died in Iraq.

The chartered jets disgorge 150-200 weary soldiers, sailors and Marines. They clear U.S. Customs here and have an hour or so while their plane is refueled and serviced. They have flown for 20-plus hours, coming from Kuwait to Cyprus or Crete to Shannon, Ireland. Now they're almost home. They wander down a long hall with no idea what's waiting for them.

The hallway is lined on both sides by young and old alike. As the first soldier appears they burst into applause and cheers and HOO-AH's. Some stop, figuring they are in the wrong line, and start to turn back. "No, no! Come on down!"

In a few steps they are in the warm embrace of small-town America, being hugged by Becky Davis, Evelyn Bradman and Sylvia Thompson, their hands shaken by Bill Knight, Ray Davis, Ron Bradman, Kevin Mooney and Harold Hanson. A dozen uniformed deputies of the Penobscot County Sheriff's Office line up as part of the welcome.

The volunteers have arranged for dozens of cell phones with free airtime, courtesy of a local company, Unicel. A big discount store - Sam's Club - sends out cakes decorated with "Welcome Home" for the troops. Some soldiers grab the first cheeseburgers they've seen in months or cold beers, then dial home to tell wives and kids and mothers and fathers they've made it out safely and will be there soon.

The first of three planes landing here Wednesday carried a mixed bag of Army troops from the 18th Airborne Corps Support Group at Fort Bragg, N.C., the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment from Fort Carson, Colo., and 3rd Corps Artillery and Support Forces from both Fort Sill, Okla., and Fort Hood, Texas.

Spc. Jessica Siewert of Philadelphia, a paralegal assigned to the 18th AB Support Group, was stunned by the welcome and eager to get back home. "We did two very successful convoys on my 21st birthday, May 17th," Siewert said. How was Iraq? "HOT!"

Spc. Brian Henry of Newbury, Ohio, of the 100th Engineer Company at Fort Bragg, said, "This is awesome. I never expected anything like this." Capt. Thomas Naugle of Johnstown, Pa., said simply, "It is so good to be back." Warrant Officer Ray Torres of Imperial Valley, Calif., just stood there grinning at the flags and banners and friendly people before turning to find one of those free phones.

Sgt. Dana Upshaw of Fayetteville, N.C., said the 18th AB Support Group handled all the records of every soldier who came into the war zone. "We kept the records on everyone who was there," she said.

Cpl. David Penfield of Nashville, Tenn., of the 3rd Armored Cav, was coming home from Iraq only to return to Iraq. Once he checks out of his old outfit at Fort Carson, he'll be reassigned to Germany to the 1st Military Intelligence Battalion. That unit is in Iraq and he will join it there. "I just hope I get a little leave in between," he said. "But I don't mind. This is what I am here for. I will give it all I've got."

Penfield, who is single, said it wasn't that hard on him, but "my mom and dad aren't very happy."

He said the 3rd ACR continued to see action in Iraq in the Ramadi area, west of Baghdad. "A remote-detonated mine killed three people in a convoy I was supposed to be on," Penfield said.

Another likely to have only a brief time at home is Maj. John Webb, operations officer for the 64th Corps Support Group at Fort Hood, who calls Portland, Ore., home. Webb said he was being promoted to lieutenant colonel in two months and his next assignment probably would take him right back to Iraq.

The second plane of the day came an hour after the first had departed. There were 152 sailors aboard, most of them belonging to a reserve Seabee unit, NMCB21, out of Lakehurst, N.J.

Their commanding officer, Lt. Cmdr. Rick Sherer, said they were called to active duty Jan. 31 and rode in the invasion of Iraq, first to Umm Qasr and then to Samawah in support of 2nd Battalion 5th Marines.

"This time next week we'll be home," Sherer said. First, they'll go to Gulfport, Miss., to do all the paperwork and medical records and demobilize. Sherer said his Seabees were from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Delaware.

When one of them, EO1 Ray Simonson of Middletown, Del., walked down the hall toward the Bangor volunteers he had eyes for only one person. His daughter Molly, a student at the University of Maine, was working a summer job in Bangor and got word that morning that her dad would be on this flight.

Molly burst into tears when she saw him and couldn't stop hugging him. Her tears were shared by more than a few of the Bangor volunteers who watched the scene.

There's one volunteer who wasn't here this day; hasn't been here in nearly 12 years. Army Sgt. George Nye, a 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) Vietnam veteran who fought in the Battle of LZ Xray in the Ia Drang Valley in November 1965, was one of the charter members of the Welcome Home project.

Nye knew what it was like to come home to no welcome, or worse, and he was determined that every returning Persian Gulf War soldier would have the warm welcome he and his comrades never got. Nye died of a heart attack during the Christmas season of 1991. He had just come back from Bangor Airport, where he had decorated a Christmas tree for "my soldiers."

Becky Davis said, "George Nye's work is still being done in Bangor."

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