Dear Bangor:

In the spring of 2004, I was a first lieutenant in the Brigade Reconnaissance Troop of Third Brigade, First Cavalry Division from Fort Hood, Texas. My troop, along with other elements of the First Cavalry Division, left from Fort Hood, Texas, to Iraq for a one-year deployment. Since our rotational deployment was the first-ever rotation following the initial invasion of Iraq, the deployment was the first combat tour for most of us. I’m telling this story now after participating in a soldier outreach program focused on telling the “soldier’s story,” concerning our occupation and experiences during the last 10 years.

From a gymnasium, we boarded buses from which we waved goodbye to our loved ones one last time. Then the buses drove us to waiting aircraft. We all knew we were flying to Kuwait, where we would initially stage and later continue into Iraq. We also understood that it would likely be awhile before we had an opportunity to call or exchange emails with our loved ones, which can weigh heavy on a deploying service member’s heart. What many of us did not realize was that we were scheduled to make one stop before we left the United States for the Middle East.

Several hours following our departure from Fort Hood, our aircraft touched down in Bangor, where I assumed we would simply sit in the terminal, while the plane would quickly be refueled, and we would once again be on our way. As expected, the aircrew instructed us to deplane while the ground crew refueled our aircraft. As we came out from our gate into the airport, something we did not expect gave us quite a surprise. The surprise was Bangor, Maine.

Although Bangor is on the edge of this great nation, and many of us service members may not have been able to find it on a map if unmarked, it did not matter to Bangor. Bangor greeted us with more care, respect and affection than any American service member would have ever expected.

Although we left our families and friends behind at Fort Hood, we were affectionately greeted by our new family and friends of Bangor. As we walked into the terminal, you, the great residents of Bangor, welcomed us with hugs, handshakes and words of encouragement and affirmation. You thrust cellphones and calling cards into our hands and enabled us to call our loved ones back home one last time before we left the United States.

Following the refueling of our aircraft, we experienced the same uplifting encouragement as we again boarded our plane. You sent us off as you would your own sons and daughter; you sent us off to war as your heroes.

One year later, we redeployed in the reverse order. Surely one year later, the luster of deploying and redeploying service members would have run its course. As we once again came off our aircraft in Bangor, you greeted us with the same enthusiasm and affection with which you sent us off a year earlier. Unfortunately, we seldom return with the entire balance of service members with which we deploy. You, the residents of Bangor, should never forget that you represented the whole of America as we departed and when we returned.

No matter how many of us departed and how many of us returned, it was you who gave us our last hugs, handshakes and the words that emboldened us as we deployed, and you were the first to offer the same as we returned. To us, you were our families; you were our friends. To us, you — the people of Bangor — represented the whole of America.

On behalf of all of the service members who passed through Bangor on our way to or from a combat zone, we the members of the Armed Services thank you for your heartfelt hospitality, and we will always have the fondest memories of our personal heroes in Bangor.

Maj. Joel Brown currently serves as a foreign area officer for the U.S. Army and lives in Washington, D.C. He deployed twice to Iraq.