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Where EAST meets the Northwest

HELLO GOODBYE. The Way We Get By ó a documentary about senior citizen "Troop Greeters" who have met nearly 900,000 American troops at a tiny airport in Bangor, Maine ó is produced by Gita Pullapilly, left, and directed by Aron Gaudet. Pictured above is Troop Greeter Bill Knight, right, talking with a female soldier at the airport. (Photos/Sean Carnell, courtesy of P.O.V.)

From The Asian Reporter, V19, #46 (November 24, 2009), page 11.

The Way We Get By chronicles lives of aging Maine Troop Greeters

The Way We Get By

Directed by Aron Gaudet

Produced by Gita Pullapilly

Presented by American Documentaryís Point of View

DVD, 86 minutes, $19.99

By Allison Voigts

My life donít mean a hell of a lot to me, but I can make it mean something to somebody else," says 86-year-old Bill Knight as his face contorts and his eyes moisten. That "somebody" is the troops that arrive and depart from Billís hometown of Bangor, Maine to Iraq and Afghanistan. And though Bill has greeted almost a million troops at the Bangor International Airport, returning soldiers continue to recognize his crooked smile as the last thing they saw before stepping onto the plane.

In The Way We Get By, a new documentary from American Documentaryís Emmy-winning Point of View (P.O.V.) series, director Aron Gaudet and producer Gita Pullapilly follow Bill and two of his fellow Troop Greeters, Jerry Mundy and Joan Gaudet (the directorís mother), on their daily and nightly rounds.

Indian-American filmmaker Gita Pullapilly, who conducts interviews for the film, was born and raised in South Bend, Indiana and is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and holds a masterís degree from Northwestern Universityís Medill School of Journalism. She worked as a television reporter before switching to documentary filmmaking.

The Greeters, who are mostly retired men and women and sometimes veterans, first gathered in 2003 for the arrival of the first plane of soldiers returning from Iraq. (The Bangor International Airport serves as the main exit and entry point for troop flights.) The Greeters had little to offer but hugs, handshakes, and applause as men and women stepped off the plane. But it was enough to bring smiles and tears to the faces of the soldiers, whose families would be waiting further on at their hometown airports.

"You donít know what youíre supposed to feel when you get off the plane," says one soldier. "You donít know who supports you."

Thatís when they see Bill, standing against the railing with a firm handshake ready, saying "Welcome home, heroes." Knight, who himself served in the army and navy for 32 years, says he was inspired by the anti-troop sentiment during the Vietnam War to ensure no soldiers returned home feeling unwelcome from the Middle East.

The Greeters treat their hobby much like a full-time career, even waking at 3:00am and braving Bangorís icy roads to greet middle-of-the-night arrivals. In the past six years they have expanded their operation to include donated cell phones which soldiers use to call loved ones upon arrival.

"I canít wait to get home so I can go to the airport again," says Joan, who, like Bill and Jerry, lives alone and suffers various health problems. "I donít know what Iíll do when [the troops] all come home."

The film, which won a host of awards at this yearís film festivals, is as much about aging and loneliness as it is about greeting the troops. Each of the main characters grieves the loss of their own loved ones, whether a spouse, a son, or a dog. Bill faces mounting credit card debt as he struggles to heat the old farmhouse he can no longer maintain, its floors covered with hundreds of empty Alpo cans he lacked either the strength or the will to pick up. They worry about dying alone. For each of them, greeting the troops gives them a mission, and a reason to live.

"If you stay at home, you go through withdrawal," Joan says.

She is the only one of the three who appears to have family in the area, and her hobby becomes personal when she learns her granddaughter Amy, a helicopter pilot, will be deployed to Iraq. As she watches the Blackhawk transporting Amy become a tiny speck on the horizon, Joan ó and the viewer ó can only hope she will greet her return also.

The Way We Get By is streaming online at P.O.V.ís website, <www.pbs.org/pov>, through December 12. To purchase a copy of the film, visit <www.thewaywegetbymovie.com>.