We simply cannot begin to thank the legendary and awe-inspiring Maine Troop Greeters enough for selflessly making it a priority at any hour of the night or day, rain or shine, weekday or weekend, to greet our brave servicemen and -women in what is nothing less than a welcomed labor of love and an unfailing and well-deserved tribute to those who, with unfathomable courage and commitment, risk their lives on our behalf every day.

The phenomenal outpouring of support for our troops demonstrated through handshakes and hugs extended 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, dating back to the first Gulf War and Operation Desert Storm, and continuing today throughout Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, remains, as it has from day one, a profound example to us all.

And to think that, as of the early morning hours of March 22, those expressions have now reached 1 million of our bravest and finest who have traveled to and from Bangor International Airport. It is testimony to the greeters’ unwavering dedication to our soldiers, who represent a limitless source of pride throughout Maine and our nation.

Indeed, what an incredible year it has been for the incredible greeters. We have witnessed the release of the powerful and acclaimed documentary “The Way We Get By,” and let me just say how honored I was to meet with Bill Knight, Joan Gaudet – mother of the film’s director – Aron, and Jerry Mundy when my colleagues in the Maine delegation and I hosted the Capitol Hill screening of the film this past September.

Furthermore, the Katahdin Area Council Boys Scouts of America presented them last November with the 2009 Distinguished Citizen Award, fittingly on Veterans Day, I might add. And the Maine State Society appropriately bestowed the greeters with the prestigious Big M Award in December.

It is indisputably challenging to find the right words to express our gratitude to our tremendous Maine Troop Greeters, but I think Tom Kohl, the chairman, characterized their contributions best when he said …“we’re the mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and neighbors of these troops who can’t be here.”

I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I well recall one soldier’s coming up to me specifically to convey to me just how remarkable the troop greeters were, and that fellow soldiers shared the same sentiment. What a shining testament they are to the Maine state motto, “Dirigo,” or “I Lead.”

It’s been nearly two decades since that memorable morning in 1991 when a large and determined group of citizens drove to BIA to welcome home our brave troops returning from Operation Desert Storm.

And who could forget Kevin Tillman, an Army sergeant with the 82nd Airborne Division, who borrowed a saxophone during a refueling stop to deliver what has been described as a “spine-tingling rendition” of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

That dedication by individuals and that unvarnished emotion and love for our country and those who defend her continues every single day. What began as a profound expression of support for our exceptional men and women in uniform by a few has flourished into a time-honored mission and tradition among many.

All of us as Mainers could not be more grateful. Our troop greeters are, in the recent words of The Bangor Daily News, “Maine (and indeed our nation) at its best.”

I wholeheartedly agree.