Greeting the Troops | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Greeting the Troops

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"The Way We Get By," a documentary about the lives of troop greeters, will be shown during the Millsaps Southern Circuit Series on Tuesday, Oct. 27.

A man in army fatigues walks off a plane along with a number of identically dressed soldiers. His two sons greet him on the ramp, and then he picks up his daughter, who looks no older than 3 years old.

"She adores you, she adores you!" her older brother says as the man contemplates his youngest child.

Then the sound of clapping echoes through the small hallway, and a crowd of people whistles and cheers and gives handshakes and hugs to the troops coming off of the plane, thanking them for their service.

But only a few scenes in "The Way We Get By" look like this. The film is a documentary about the troop greeters in the Bangor, Maine, airport, which for many troops is the last stop they make before leaving the U.S. and the first stop they make on their return journey. At all hours of the day and night, the greeters meet the soldiers on each arriving or departing flight, providing cookies, cell phones, jokes, hugs and support.

The film focuses on the lives of three of the greeters, including 86-year-old Bill Knight, whose farmhouse is filled with empty cat food cans covering the floor, who has no fewer than 25 vacuum cleaners in his third story, and who has so much trash piled up that it's clear that he's given up.

We see 75-year-old Joan Gaudet on Christmas day, leaving her trailer to visit one of her children, give advice on how to cook the turkey and spend time with her grandchildren who are soon to be deployed.

We see Jerry Mundy, 73, and his dog Flannigan watching the flights come in and talking about what it means to be alone in the world.

Director Aron Gaudet and producer/interviewer Gita Pillapully, who both live in Boston, managed to avoid flashing their political biases all over the film. It is much less about the politics of war than about the human condition, aging and being useful in the face of mortality.

The "Way We Get By" has received numerous accolades, including the South By Southwest Film Festival Special Jury Award for feature-length documentaries. It will be showcased during the Southern Circuit Film series at Millsaps College on Tuesday, Oct. 27. Gaudet will be present at the screening to answer questions after the film. The JFP spoke to him by phone.

Your mother is in the movie. Is that where the idea for the film came from?
Yeah, Joan in the movie is my mom. It stems from her retiring and not having anything going on in her life. And then she found troop greeting, and it totally changed her life and gave her life such purpose. I went from calling home and having her always be there to calling home and her never being there; even at 11 at night, she wouldn't be there. Come to find out, she wasn't there at 2 or 3 in the morning, either. She was at the airport.

How did you choose the three people you focused on?
When we first followed my mom down to the airport (in December 2004) at 2 a.m., the first person we met was Bill Knight, the World War II veteran from the film. We found out that earlier in the day, he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. But he was still there at 2 a.m. greeting troops. And then after all that, we asked him if we could go home with him. He hadn't let anyone into his house for five years, since his wife died. And he let us in with cameras and let us into his life.

Jerry was this guy that always had a group of soldiers around him laughing. We were essentially drawn to him because he seemed like he was a joker. Jerry and Bill were great in that they didn't question what we were doing or whether they should let us into their lives. And my mom, we knew we could get access to her.

Do the troop flights come in every day?
It's pretty much every day, on average, six or seven days a week. I would say a lot of times it's four, five, six flights in a day. (There have been) 5,000 flights so far in six years.

The film wasn't politically biased. Was that difficult?
It wasn't as difficult as we thought it would be. The first rule they have to be a troop greeter is to leave your politics outside the airport, so we gave the film that same rule. In the end, we kind of hinted at how they each stood politically, but we didn't make the movie about that.

How did everyone feel about it after it was finished, and they saw it?
All three of them really loved the movie. I tried to show an honest portrayal of each person's life. I think in the end, they really respected that when they saw the movie.

When editing the film, which parts stuck out or surprised you?
The time when Bill said, "I've outlived my usefulness." I remember thinking that I couldn't think of a worse thing than to feel that way. That just broke my heart. That was a moment that (I thought) here's this guy that if he only understood just what he was doing and what it meant to everyone, I didn't think he would be feeling that way.

We live in a culture where you really are defined by your occupation and what you bring to the table, what you provide to you community. And I think when you retire, you lose that identity. It's really cool that the troop greeters all came together and said, "We're going to find a way to be useful, and we're really going to do something in the community that needs to be done."

"The Way We Get By," will be shown Tuesday, Oct. 27 at 7 p.m. in the Ford Academic Complex at Millsaps College. The event is free and open to the public.

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