This is what "supporting the troops" looks like...
It was tragically ironic that I watched The Way We Get By on the same night as President Obama's speech outlining the troop surge in Afghanistan. Any other night the speech would have been mildly depressing, but that night, after watching the story of a group of seniors greeting more than 900,000 soldiers stepping back onto U.S. soil in Bangor, ME, well, it was soul-crushing.
The Way We Get By, which is still available to view for free online at PBS through Sunday, is not a documentary about the war (we've had plenty of those, most forgettable), and it's not even about the soldiers. It is about finding meaning in the sunset years of life, and serving others without any condition or expectation of reward. In essence, it is about finding life in the face of death.
It must have been an incredibly emotional film for Aron Gaudet to make. His mother, Joan, is an active volunteer in the Maine Troop Greeters, a group of senior citizens who since 2003 have made a point of personally greeting every single U.S. soldier who returns home via the Bangor (ME) International Airport. The Way We Get By focuses on Joan, Bill Knight, and Jerry Mundy as they face a host of challenges in their golden years: the loss of a spouse, cancer (Bill), grandchildren going off to war (Joan), loneliness, financial distress, and multiple physical ailments. Although this sounds depressing, these three characters are steadfast in their optimism about the importance of their work in supporting the troops - even if they don't necessarily agree with the war.
In many ways, The Way We Get By reminded me of last year's terrific Young @ Heart. It is a more solemn film because these senior citizens are greeting troops instead of singing rock songs, but the point is that both documentaries offered encouraging profiles of people making the most of their retirement years, humbly looking to the future while gratefully acknowledging the past.
And while this film is not about the war, per se, it was about the war for me that night. I was floored by the image of the Joan, Bill, and Jerry greeting another 30,000 young men and women coming back from Afghanistan. And I thought about what I mean when I say that I don't support the war, but I support the troops. It's a nice, empty claim people make so they can sleep at night in a country that is heavily involved in combat thousands of miles away. But despite all of their own struggles, the troop greeters don't sleep at night - at least not when there is a new group of war-weary soldiers arriving on a 3:00 AM flight.
The Way We Get By aired as the Fall Special for the 2009 P.O.V. season. It is available to view online through Sunday, December 13.