Monday, October 25, 2010

Called to Duty


The decision was made Monday morning to fly to Bangor, Maine last Thursday to see a client who needed a check-in. The check-in was as much for me and his parents as it was for him, and it seems, as best as I can tell, that he is doing as good as possible given the coming darkness of winter. As I boarded a U.S. Airways jet to LaGuardia Airport, the layover on the way to Bangor, I thought of the passage in Isaiah that explained why I would cancel my plans and leave my home in the morning for the 640-mile commute:

And I heard the voice of the Lord say, "Who shall I send
and who will go for us? " and I answered,
"Here I am, send me"


The verse has been used many times to describe the warrior ethic, the notion of being willing to serve anywhere and everywhere, wherever, whenever.

It was fanciful and not too subtly narcissistic of me, but I do see my work as a bit of a calling. The trip turned out to serve its purpose. I was able to collect the ground truth to help my client and capture Maine at a breathtaking time of year, as the leaves turn red, orange and golden over the landscape and the town of Bangor gets ready for what must be its most important holiday, Halloween, given its most famous resident is Stephen King. In addition to my work, there was enough time to visit King's house, a beautifully restored home on a hill on West Broadway. On my way out, there was time to visit parks along the majestic Kenduskeag Stream.

In one of my interviews to gather information for my client, I asked about what was the most curious thing I had seen: hundreds of uniformed military from the Army's 10th Mountain Division sleeping on the floor, smoking outside, pacing around and eating in the diners at Bangor International Airport.

My host explained that Bangor was the last stop for many American soldiers before they headed off to war in Afghanistan, for some, she explained, the last step they would take on American soil before returning in caskets at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

"I always look at them and wonder," my host said, "which ones of them are not coming home."

Bangor International Airport lies on the former grounds of Dow Air Force Base, and, for thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen each month it is their last stop in the United States before they head to war and their first stop on American soil on their way home.

"You can always tell whether they are coming or going because they are so excited when they are coming home," she says, "And when they are leaving, you can see their anxiety."

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have barely been in my face since leaving The New York Times as a reporter in 2003. Sometimes it's easy to forget about the real people behind the operations and body counts thousands of miles away in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Not so in Bangor, whose citizens have established a program where local residents greet the contract flights that bring the military personnel in and take them away.

"They are there," my host said, "no matter what time they arrive, no matter what day of the week."

The troop greeters have been celebrated in a film documentary called, “The Way We Get By”. The film also touches on the personal lives of a few of the greeters. A man in his 80s who is fighting cancer and is a veteran of World War II. A woman of the same age whose daughter was a Blackhawk helicopter pilot who had been deployed to Iraq. For all of Bangor's aesthetic beauty, what happens at the airport captures a feature of compassion and kindness almost more noteworthy.

My thoughts of my own dedication and inconvenience fade away when I think of the lines of soldiers, in formation, marching down the terminal hall in Bangor, and the tears in the eyes of the strangers they left behind, both being called upon to go, both taking on a service that goes beyond duty.

The thought makes the things that I am called to do each day come much easier.