Every day and night since May of 2003, a group of people in Bangor, Maine, have been on call for an uncommon, self-appointed duty at the city's international airport: to greet every flight carrying troops returning from, or departing for, Iraq and Afghanistan. All of the greeters featured in "The Way We Get By" (PBS Wednesday, 9-10:30 p.m. ET, but check local listings) are elderly and battling illness. The soldiers we see them cheering look uniformly fit and bursting with youthful health. As the film progresses, the interaction between the young (who face a possible death) and the old (who are staring at a more-certain one) sheds new light on the meaning of service. Along the way it also stuns us with unforgettable portraits of Americans of all ages in the fullness of life.
Bangor International Airport has been the first (or last) landfall in the U.S. for more than 900,000 troops (and dozens of dogs) from Iraq and Afghanistan. Sometimes there are six or more flights a day, each duly recorded on an airport wall chart by the greeters. As the war-zone returnees file off the planes here—everyone we see is clad in light-colored camouflage fatigues—the first person they hear inside the terminal often is 87-year old veteran Bill Knight, standing ready to shake every passing hand. Sometimes he cries out "Welcome home, heroes." Alert viewers will see even battle-hardened soldiers choking up.
On some faces there is joy. But for many, it takes more than landfall to break a grim spell; it takes the sight of these American civilians waiting in the terminal to say thanks. "You feel dull until you walk down the ramp and see these people," one apparently battle-hardened soldier explains in a wobbly voice. Then "you get tears in your eyes."
Some of the most affecting moments here involve contemporary soldiers stopping to hug and honor the greeters, whom they see as the generation of GIs who went before. "We're standing on their shoulders," one returnee says, and "what they've done in years gone by. We're just now starting to appreciate [that service] because we had to go through it ourselves."
Read more at Uncommon Calls to Duty.