The email, signed only “A Thankful Soldier,” landed six years ago in the inbox of the Maine Troop Greeters.

It tells of the night his military unit passed through the Bangor International Airport on route to Iraq and how stunned they all were to walk smack into “a celebration like I have seen in the movies for soldiers coming home from WWII.”

Soldiers at Bangor International Airport on a return leg of their journey to McChord Air Force Base in Washington state pass through what will be the Maine Troop Greeters Museum. Photo by Kevin Bennett

“I’m sure it was not easy greeting soldiers in the middle of the night in bad weather,” the soldier continued. “The trouble you have gone through to wake up on your own and make it to the airport shows character. It shows dedication, self-discipline and a desire to make a difference in the world.”

Finally, the soldier wrote, “In a world that only cares about self, thank you for caring about others. This may not be an award or medal but your efforts are appreciated by many soldiers.”

What do you do with such heartfelt words?

How do you ensure that this message, and the tens of thousands just like it, don’t dissolve into the fog of history, never to be seen again?

And how about the nearly 6,000 military challenge coins, countless unit patches and other tokens of appreciation that have accumulated as the Maine Troop Greeters make “Bangor” synonymous with “Americans at their finest.” How do you properly preserve all that stuff?

You build a museum.

“We have all this memorabilia that’s been donated over the years,” said Gil Cory, 81, as he and his fellow volunteers spent a recent rainy day turning a simple airport ramp into the most hallowed of hallways. “We felt if there wasn’t some type of permanent home found for it, the time would come when it will just dribble out, it will slowly disappear, wind up in somebody’s garage or a storage unit someplace.”

Not going to happen.

The Maine Troop Greeters Museum, three years in the making, opens today in the very space where more than 1.5 million troops and some 400 Mainers have met – over and over and over again since 2003 – during refueling stops for military flights to and from Iraq, Afghanistan and other overseas destinations.

Where once-blank walls lined either side of the long hallway, 14 glass-paneled cases now commemorate this most uplifting of war stories.

Along one wall, more than 5,700 challenge coins sit on stainless steel racks, each given to the greeters by an appreciative soldier, sailor, airman or Marine.

Along the other, a visual history shows how the simplest of ideas – thanking incoming and outgoing troops for their service – turned what was once Dow Air Force Base into a cherished memory for the troops and, for the greeters, a reason to get up in the morning.

The museum also features touchpads with recordings of selected thank-you letters from the servicemen and women (as read by greeters), along with a vast database detailing the origins of each challenge coin, compliments of greeter and resident researcher Ken Vaillancourt.

A small selection of military challenge coins on display at the Maine Troop Greeters Museum. Photo by Kevin Bennett

Architect Brewster Buttfield of Portland-based Prospect Design created the museum with one overarching theme in mind: The thousands of items are, in and of themselves, not the real story here.

“Each object represents an interaction between a soldier and a greeter. That is the nugget,” Buttfield said. Thus, when visitors see a challenge coin, “they’ll think a soldier gave that and a troop greeter gave him a handshake, a welcome or a goodbye.”

They still do: While the Iraq war is long over, troops still come and go from Afghanistan and other overseas deployments. And each time a military flight touches down, the greeters still mobilize.

Where once there was an old-fashioned, person-to-person phone tree, automated messages now go out to some 400 cellphones or home answering machines announcing a flight’s estimated time of arrival.

And while some of the veteran greeters have passed away – Joan Gaudet and Bill Knight, profiled in the Oscar-nominated documentary film “The Way We Get By,” died in 2014 and 2013 respectively; World War II and Korea veteran Norm Rossignol, a regular greeter since 2003, died in September at age 91 – their legacy lives on in folks like Cory, who lives in Brewer, and fellow museum co-chair Cathy Czarnecki of Hermon.

Cory first showed up seven years ago after reading in the paper about the hoopla surrounding the documentary, produced by Joan Gaudet’s son and daughter-in-law, Aron Gaudet, and Gita Pullapilly.

One trip to the airport and Cory was hooked.

“It’s one of these experiences where you know you have done the right thing and the people on the other side know you’ve done the right thing,” he said. “It’s hard to put it into words, really.”

Czarnecki became a greeter way back in 2003 for one simple reason: Her son, an Army reservist, was on the first of his two deployments to Iraq. By reaching out to other mothers’ sons and daughters as they went into and out of harm’s way, she hoped somebody somewhere “would do the same for my son, give him a nice smile or a handshake or a hug if he needed it.”

Her boy is now home, safe and sound and no longer in the military. Yet Czarnecki keeps showing up as a new generation of young men and women in uniform parade down the hallway wide-eyed at the music, the cheering, the pats on the back, the offers of toothbrushes, razors, a cellphone to call home, whatever they might need.

Cathy Czarnecki and Gil Cory, co-chairs of the Maine Troop Greeters Museum at the Bangor International Airport. Photo by Kevin Bennett

“I can’t explain why I do it,” Czarnecki said. “You have to come.”

Or, if you can’t do that, you can support them as they do Maine proud. To donate to the museum, go to themainetroopgreeters.org/.

Cory hasn’t a clue how many flights he’s greeted over the years. Nor does Czarnecki.

Whatever the number, which do they look forward to more – a planeload of soldiers coming home, or those just embarking on a deployment?

Cory prefers the homecomings. More than once, he’s smiled at soldiers making snow angels on the sidewalk just outside the terminal.

“It’s the euphoria,” he explained. “They’re back. They’re happy.”

For Czarnecki, it’s the departures. She gives each soldier a Maine Troop Greeters challenge coin, with the State of Maine Seal on one side and, on the other, a golden handshake surrounded by the symbols of all five U.S. military branches.

“I put it in their hand,” she said. “And I say, ‘Put that in your pocket. And just know every time you put your hand in your pocket and feel that coin, that a lot of people in Maine love you and appreciate what you’re doing.’ ”

The same can be said about these everyday Mainers who, for 14 years and counting, have set their alarms, put their own lives on hold and, day after day, month after month, year after year, headed for the airport with open arms and outstretched hands.

“You come here and you’re having a not-so-good day, whatever,” said Cory. “You leave and you’re walking on air.”

It’s a story worth saving.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

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Twitter: @billnemitz