BANGOR – The program started when veterans greeting troops at the Bangor International Airport last year saw a female Army medic who looked grief-stricken, sitting alone in the terminal.
The soldier had lost a couple of comrades just before the Army unit began its homeward voyage, and the American Legion and Maine Troop Greeter members wanted to do anything to ease the woman’s pain, said Randy Kluj, a Vietnam veteran and chairman of the troop greeters’ liaison committee for the Department of Maine American Legion.
So in October, the state American Legion raised money from its local posts and volunteers began stuffing and stitching together patriotic bears at the Build-A-Bear Workshop at the Bangor Mall. The Maine Troop Greeters help by giving the bears to troops passing through who have had children while deployed, or to those who are ill, wounded or just really down, Kluj said.
Seven volunteers gathered Wednesday morning at the store to stuff 55 more bears, in part to mark the five year anniversary of the war and also to replenish the depleted stock.
“You see [troops] holding the bears like babies, and the look on their faces is just wonderful,” said Kluj.
In the five months since its inception, the American Legion has given between 500 and 600 bears to troops passing through BIA, most going to new parents, Kluj said. During an extraordinarily busy two-week window in December and January the troop greeters gave out 100 bears.
The butter cream and beige colored teddy bears have a red, white and blue ribbon sewn on one ear and a yellow ribbon on the other. Complete with a birth certificate, the teddies are given patriotic names, such as Courage, Liberty and Freedom, and a birth date, which is the date of stuffing. The certificate is addressed to “An American Hero” and indicates the bear was “stuffed with love” from the Department of Maine American Legion.
Kluj said on Wednesday he had visited eight posts in nine days to raise money for the next round of bears, which cost about $10 a piece. For every 50 bears the volunteers make, Build-A-Bear only charges for 35 and donates the remaining 15, Kluj said. The company also gives the Legion a coupon for a free bear once they purchase 10, he said.
Kluj’s son, an Army Apache helicopter pilot, returned from a 15-month deployment in January. During an awards ceremony for his son’s unit at Fort Hood, Texas, Kluj said he saw the true sacrifices made by soldiers today.
“I saw some of the soldiers there with five, four, three kids wrapped around their legs,” he said. “They are making a sacrifice, but you know their spouse and family is, too.”