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PBS documentary on troop greeters airs tonight

A purpose-driven life: Welcoming troops home an essential calling for seniors

Nov. 11, 2009 - 02:40PM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 11, 2009 - 02:40PM  |  
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A troop plane is due to land at Bangor International Airport in Maine and Bill Knight is pacing the airport hallway like an expectant father. When the soldiers finally file off the aircraft and onto U.S. soil for the first time in months, the stooped octogenarian is the first to greet them back from war.

"Welcome home. Welcome home, sergeant," he says, shaking each of their hands as they shuffle by. "Welcome home."

It's a passing moment for many soldiers, on their way to more emotional reunions with spouses, kids and parents, but it will stick with viewers of "The Way We Get By," a moving documentary about Knight and other volunteers with the Maine Troop Greeters that is screening in select cities this fall and on PBS on Veterans Day.

Since 2003, the greeters have hailed and farewelled hundreds of thousands of service members going to and from Iraq and Afghanistan. Against the backdrop of this constant stream of camo, the filmmakers profile three of the most dedicated: Knight, 86; Jerry Mundy, 73; and Joan Gaudet, 75.

Like its subjects, the documentary spends a lot of time with tired troops in airport hallways and lounges. Jerry cracks jokes as he hands out cell phones: "Call someone up, make them happy, ugly or horny." Bill, a World War II veteran, shares stories about his service in Europe during the war. Joan dispenses hugs like the grandmother she is. And after each flight, they update a white board with the tally of service members welcomed.

These are the kind of scenes that can tug heartstrings with one hand tied behind their back, and they do. But the film's real power comes when it leaves the airport and follows Bill, Joan and Jerry into the loneliness, tedium and worries of old age.

As they struggle with sick and aching bodies, the fear of being forgotten, the deaths and departures of family and friends, the movie illuminates how much this white-haired trio identifies with the men and women in uniform they greet — and the meaning this service gives their lives.

"What am I going to do when I don't have this?" wonders Joan. "I'd be lost."

"My life don't mean a lot to me," Bill says, "but if I can make it mean something to someone else — that's my endeavor."

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