Almost six months have passed since the Maine Army National Guard’s Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 172nd Infantry, bade farewell to Maine and headed for a one-year deployment in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan.

Heard much about them since?

Probably not.

Once they’re absorbed into the 94,000-strong military force in Afghanistan, which just last week edged past the number of troops currently serving in Iraq, units like Bravo Company tend to disappear into a daily routine that rarely, if ever, makes headlines back home.

That changes this week.

Late Friday, I boarded a flight from Boston to Frankfurt, Germany. There, I connected Saturday evening with a flight to Kabul, where I was scheduled to arrive early this morning.

If all goes according to plan, I’ll travel today from Kabul to Bagram Airfield and arrange for military transport sometime over the next few days to Bravo Company’s post on Afghanistan’s mountainous border with Pakistan.

It’s called Combat Outpost (COP) Dand Wa Patan. According to Capt. Paul Bosse of Auburn, the 151 men under his command are there to help the Afghan Border Police and the Afghan Uniform Police stem the flow of insurgents and their weapons into Afghanistan from the tribal regions just across the border in western Pakistan.

“In general, living conditions on the COP are not bad, but they are not great,” Bosse told me in a recent e-mail. “Most people still sleep on a cot. When they are on mission at the (nearby) Fire Base and OP (observation post) they sleep on the ground or in a vehicle. Believe me, they are living the infantry life when outside the wire.”

So why go there?

Simple.

Since Maine’s “citizen soldiers” began traveling en masse to far-off war zones seven long years ago, it’s been my firm belief that their stories deserve to be told.

And as columnist for Maine’s largest news-gathering organization, I’ve felt just as strongly that if we don’t tell those stories — as up-close-and-personal as humanly possible — there’s a pretty good chance nobody will.

I was lucky, twice in 2004 and once again in 2007, to work for a newspaper that saw value in traveling to Iraq to report on units from both the Maine Army National Guard and the Army Reserve.

And now, with these newspapers under new ownership, I’m equally fortunate that my new boss, Richard Connor, can look as far away as Patkya Province in eastern Afghanistan and agree there’s a local story out there that needs to be told.

I learned a long time ago to be careful about predicting, before my boots even touch the ground, exactly where that story will take us. News, after all, sometimes happens — and never more so than in a war zone.

That said, I see many, many avenues worth pursuing. And as I explore them, I invite you to share the journey both in print and online, where MaineToday media online producer Suzi Piker will work her miracles with the words, photos, sound and occasional video I send her way at www.pressherald.com. (She’s even talked me into posting a blog.)

I hope to examine the delicate relationship between our soldiers from Maine and the Afghan security forces who, sooner or later, must protect their own country without our help.

I hope to visit the school near COP Dand Wa Patan, where Bosse recently befriended the principal, Hakeem Gul, in an effort to get boys at the school to stop pelting Bravo Company’s passing convoys with rocks.

“If we can convince (the Afghan children) that we are truly here to help, then we win. If not, we lose. That simple. That hard,” Bosse wrote in an eloquent essay earlier this month for the Maine Sunday Telegram.

Most of all, I want to get to know these young Mainers who, once again, have put their civilian lives on hold and voluntarily gone to a place where the harsh climate, complex politics and ever-changing currents of war are unlike anything they ever experienced back home.

Mainers like Sgt. San Pao of Buxton. I first met him back in 2004 in Mosul, Iraq, where he served with the Maine Guard’s 133rd Engineer Battalion. Specifically, I remember him running over from his barracks one evening as I left on a night convoy to a remote forward operating base in Kurdistan.

“Take these,” Pao said, handing me a pair of high-tech, flame-resistant gloves. “You never know.”

I e-mailed Sgt. Pao recently to tell him we’d soon cross paths again.

“That is freaking awesome,” he wrote back. “I’m glad that you are able to be here and to report our daily activity and lifestyle.”

As am I.

And so

Passport? Check.

Visa? Travel orders? Check, check.

Notebook? Laptop? Body armor? Check, check and check.

Let the adventure begin.

 

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

[email protected]